Celtics vs. Warriors: Boston may still be NBA champions, but it has to show us something

There may still be hope for the Boston Celtics. But their best chance of claiming another banner is a thing of the past.

Sure, yes, of course – Boston can technically still win this series if they stay at home in Game 6 on Thursday night and then return to San Francisco and then put a W on the Warriors’ home floor on Sunday night in Game 7.

However, they are on the verge of elimination because they have betrayed the wave of resilience and stellar defenses that brought them here. Closing down and pushing past, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler are impressive victories. Dealing with Steph Curry – and the real, brutal, rare, surprising effect of trying to win an NBA title – is something completely different.

Call it pressure. Call it fear. Call it the moment that separates the talented from the winners, the professionals from the champions. Whatever it is, it beat the Celtics the last two games as much as Curry & Co. did.

Especially in Game 4, when the Warriors offered a victory to the Celtics on a silver platter. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and their teammates simply failed.

As in Game 4, the Celtics went into the fourth quarter of Game 5 down a single point after a back and forth, hard fought competition. Unlike in Game 4, however, Curry did not get up to beat them on his own. They did well against themselves.

In Game 4, Boston had a 3-1 lead in the series, and all that probably meant. Then Curry happened, and on the other side of a 17-3 Warriors race to end that match, we put on 2-2. Nice. The series continues. Going against GOATs means you’ll probably have to deal with the big shows; The key is how to cope with the storm. But the failure in Game 5 came with Curry decidedly deadly: 16 points, a 0-for-9 night from the 3-point line, and no heroics in the fourth quarter.

Curry may have beaten them a few days earlier, but this was just the Celtics, again, nervous, nervous and insecure beating themselves. They hosted four sales in the fourth quarter. They shot 27 percent from the field and the rat 25 percent behind the arc. Tatum and Brown came together to go 2-of-9 from the field. They broke.

To win the next two games, they must do much more than defeat the Warriors and their all-time big star. The Celtics must overcome something in themselves that has made the NBA’s best team a shell of itself in the fourth quarter of their last two games.

And their mistakes have come against a different type of Warriors team compared to those who have competed for, and won, NBA championships lately – a minor one.

There is no Kevin Durant who can save the Warriors on a Curry off-night. Klay Thompson has wavered between mediocre and fine, Draymond Green between terrible and so-so. Jordan Poole has long since returned to something very similar to a G-leaguer. Andrew Wiggins has certainly been excellent, but if you can not beat a team in the NBA Finals on a night where Wiggins is the best player, you are probably in big trouble.

Curry is Curry, yes, except for the uncharacteristic night he had on Monday. But Curry historically reacts to bad fights in the playoffs with effective nights with dominant, brilliant attacks.

“Well, that’s good for us,” Green said after the game, having seen this story before. “He was 0-for-9 from 3. He’s going to be terrified into Game 6, and that’s exactly what we need.”

There are many X’s and O’s you can study, many numbers that can tell the story of large sample sizes and statistical realities of both these teams. These are the battle plans Boston can, and should, work out to recreate what they’ve done well over long stretches of a series they should win, and so on.

But as the two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas told me, it all goes out the window when the pressure is turned up to the maximum. “The pressure is real,” he said. “Some players, some good players, can handle it. Some can’t.”

But the real answer to how Boston wins this thing is simple and twofold: Do not let Curry beat you, and do not beat yourself.

On the first: Good luck. Curry, as I have written, is likely to end his career as a top-5 player of all time, an all-time talent who is all too often underestimated, and earn the rewards he deserves long after. But he is the best player on the floor in this series, he has shown that he can win a match on his own if he has to, and in match 5 his teammates started offering the kind of help he could have used all the time. Curry, as Green said, is going to get angry Thursday night, and he’s going to be dangerous.

But the second point addresses why this series feels finished: No team can win a championship if the closer they get, the faster they disappear. And the Celtics have been a bundle of nerves and worries and bad play in the moments where a ring has been at the end – turned the ball, played hot potato, lacked a star willing to seize the moment.

Tatum has been away a lot of this series. Brown has had several weak second innings. Marcus Smart has not filled that void. And you can only ask Al Horford and Derrick White to save the day in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals once – and once it feels like once too much.

The Celtics have a chance on Thursday night, and as head coach Ime Udoka pointed out, they were in exactly this position, under 3-2 and facing elimination, earlier this post-season against last year’s champions, the Milwaukee Bucks.

But playoff basketball is about adjustments, and the one Boston needs to make is the one we have not seen them do yet: the ability to grasp a series, under the most intense sense of hope and fear, when something as rare as a championship presents itself.

We’ve seen enough to know that Steph Curry can. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics are still trying to figure out how to match him when it matters most.