BOSTON — Three times in this year’s NBA playoffs, the Boston Celtics have found themselves one loss away from going home for the summer. Three times in these playoffs, the Celtics have found a way to extend their season — including two victories on the road.
So, as Boston prepares to host the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals at TD Garden on Thursday night (9 ET on ABC), when asked why they are confident they can win two more elimination games and claim the 2022 NBA championship, the Celtics have a simple response:
“I think just how we respond,” Jayson Tatum said when asked what makes his team so resilient in these situations. “It hasn’t been easy. It’s been extremely tough. We’ve had some tough losses. Losing Game 5 against Milwaukee was extremely tough. Knowing we had to win two, go on the road. Losing Game 6 against the Heat was extremely tough.
“In those moments, we just responded. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think just our will to want to win, just trying to figure it out.”
Those losses Tatum referred to — Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks and Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat — both came here in Boston, where the Celtics are just 6-5 this postseason.
Still, the Celtics are more than confident they can extend this series to a seventh game Sunday — in part because when this team has played the way it knows it is capable of, it has looked like it was in control of the proceedings.
Even after the many deep playoff runs this young core has had this season, with all of Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart having played in at least three conference finals together. But it was the first season for coach Ime Udoka and his coaching staff, and Boston has needed to grind its way through the playoffs, taking out Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler along the way.
“Everything has been a learning experience,” Brown said. “We wear everything that we learned this year as a badge of honor that we kind of wear. We don’t let it hang over our heads. We bounce back. We’ve been able to respond well all year. We’re looking forward to the challenge. We got to embrace it. Ain’t no other way around it. Last game on our home floor to kind of embody our whole season. We’re looking to give it everything we got. We are not scared. We do not fear the Golden State Warriors. We want to come out and play the best version of basketball that we can.
“We know it’s a good team over there. We know they’ve done it before. But we have all the belief in ourselves. We’re going to come out and leave it all out there. That’s the whole intent.”
Another intent the Celtics have? To talk less to the officials. Boston had many animated conversations with the referees in Game 5, including Udoka picking up a technical in the first quarter and getting into it with veteran referee Tony Brothers in the fourth, and Marcus Smart picking up a technical foul in the fourth, as well, as Boston got its doors blown off and saw a late third-quarter lead quickly disappear.
Both Udoka and several players insisted that those moments are behind them, and instead the plan going into Game 6 is to put that stuff to the side and focus on the action on the court.
“I think, in general, just too many conversations being had at times,” Udoka said. “Feels like after foul calls or dead balls, free throws, timeouts, there’s somebody talking to a ref. Something we emphasized early in the season and had gotten away from quite a bit.
“So something we got to spend our energy on the game, and everything else going in between, other than the referees. An area we can be better at, for sure.”
Speaking of things Boston can be better at, the other issue looming over this series is Boston’s turnover problem. When the Celtics commit 15 or fewer turnovers in these playoffs, they are 14-2.
But when they commit 16 or more? They are 0-7, including losses in Games 2, 4 and 5 of this series to the Warriors. Tatum already has committed more turnovers than any player in a single playoffs in NBA postseason history.
That’s why the Celtics have repeatedly said that it is their offense, and not their defense on Stephen Curry, that will determine whether they win an NBA title.
“I mean, you look at the big picture, we’re defending well enough to win,” Udoka said. “It’s really some stagnant lulls offensively that have really hurt us. We’ll have a quarter or two or three of really good basketball, then have that quarter or two that really have hurt us. That was the fourth quarter a few games ago.
“Even last game, once we got the lead, what we did well for the first nine, 10 minutes of the third quarter, we had a little bit of slippage at the end there that allowed them to get back in. For us, we want to focus on the offensive end, because I think we’ve guarded enough to win. Game 4, if we finish the game off well, not that five-minute stint, we’d be in good shape.
“That’s our optimism.”