The Boston Celtics are in dire straits after losing to Golden State on Monday in Game 5 of the NBA finals, leaving them in a 3-2 deficit as the series shifts to Boston on Thursday. Teams with 3-2 leads in the best-of-seven NBA finals have won the championship 39 of 48 times – 81.3 percent. Some of the Celtics’ regular-season woes are reappearing in the finals: They haven’t been able to sustain effort for entire games and have watched fourth-quarter leads evaporate.
Golden State, meanwhile, is in the driver’s seat. On Monday, Stephen Curry had his first underwhelming game of the series, and his team still won – a bad sign for the Celtics.
But there is still at least one game to be played. The Celtics have made a habit of coming back at unexpected times, including in Game 1, which featured an unexpected fourth-quarter implosion by Golden State.
Here’s a look at where the series stands before a potential elimination game on the NBA’s biggest stage.
For Boston to Win:
Can the Celtics locate Jayson Tatum?
Jayson Tatum, 24, is the biggest reason the Celtics reached the finals. He is one of the best scorers in the league and is capable of dropping 50 points in a playoff game, as he did last year against the Nets in the first round. But against Golden State, he has had difficulty scoring near the basket and has had trouble with turnovers. On Monday night, he set a league record for turnovers in a postseason. Tatum is shooting 37.3 percent from the field against Golden State.
If the Celtics are going to put off elimination, they’ll need more from Tatum. But there is hope for Boston: In Game 6 of this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks, with the Celtics facing the same deficit, Tatum pulled out a 46-point performance.
Can the Celtics stop turning the ball over?
In Game 5, the Celtics had 18 turnovers, and Golden State had six. In Game 2, the Celtics had 18, and Golden State had 12. This has been a problem for the Celtics throughout the playoffs, particularly with their stars, Tatum and Jaylen Brown – who often have been stripped while dribbling into the paint. If Boston doesn’t take care of the ball, it doesn’t win. End of story.
Defensively, the Celtics have been fine. Golden State has scored from 100 to 108 points in each of the first five games, which, considering its offensive talent, is acceptable. It’s on the offensive end where Boston has struggled to generate consistent looks.
For Golden State to Win:
Can the supporting cast show up again?
For most of the series, Curry has had to shoulder an enormous offensive burden. In the first four games of the series, the Warriors shot only 37.3 percent on attempts considered wide open. That’s mostly on the rest of the Golden State players who haven’t been able to make Boston pay for tight defense on Curry.
That is until Game 5, when Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole punished the Celtics from deep, making up for Curry’s 0-for-9 night from 3. Even Draymond Green, who has had a dismal series, had 8 points, serving as a crucial release valve for Curry.
If Golden State’s non-Curry players hit their shots, Boston will find it very difficult to win.
Does Curry have another pantheon performance in him?
Golden State showed that it could win despite a bad game from Curry. But it doesn’t want to take that chance again. Curry’s 43-point performance in Game 4 was remarkable. If he can dig deep for another similar outing, he puts himself in the conversation for one of the best finals performances in history.
If Boston wins:
The series will head to a winner-take-all Game 7. And if the Celtics win that, they will have completed an astonishing turnaround from January, when they were 18-21. It will prove that a team can win a championship with two ball-dominant wings who play similar games, in this case Tatum and Brown. It will also validate the team’s decision not to trade its young players for any of the established ones who have hit the market in recent years.
Golden State will have to wonder whether not trading any of its young players – the rookies Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga and the second-year center James Wiseman – for immediate help would have been the right move to take advantage of Curry’s dwindling window.
If Golden State wins:
The ascension of Andrew Wiggins will reach new heights.
For the first five years of Andrew Wiggins’ career, he was known mostly as a cautionary tale. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected him first overall in the 2014 NBA draft and then traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves weeks later to build a title contender around LeBron James. He showed flashes of elite athleticism, enough for Minnesota to invest a maximum contract extension in him. But the production never matched the contract. Since joining Golden State through a trade in 2020, however, Wiggins has turned his career around. This year, he played in his first All-Star Game. And in the finals, he has been, at times, the best player on either team. If Golden State wins the championship, Wiggins will have been a huge reason – and it will complete a remarkable turnaround in his career.
The Stephen Curry legacy grows.
If Golden State wins Game 6, it is a virtual certainty that Curry will win the final Valuable Player Award finals, which would fill the remaining hole in his résumé. But a championship has larger stakes for Curry. His previous titles – according to some NBA observers – have not been legacy-burnishing championships in the way they have been for other stars. In 2015, Golden State beat a James-led Cavaliers team missing two of its three best players. In 2017 and 2018, Golden State beat the Cavaliers again, but Kevin Durant was arguably the best player on those teams. This would be Curry’s first championship in which he was unambiguously the best player on Golden State and the opposing team was at full strength. This championship would vault Curry higher in the discussion of NBA greats.
Boston will consider tinkering.
Most of Boston’s key players are young and still entering their primes. Tatum and Brown are dynamic wings who can, in theory, be All-Stars for years to come. But if they lose, questions will arise about whether they can do it together. The issue for Boston is that it doesn’t have much free-agency wiggle room. With several teams expected to make improvements next year – including the division-rival Nets and Toronto Raptors – the Celtics will face difficult questions about whether making changes at the edges is enough.
Draymond Green will podcast to his heart’s desire.
Green has offered insightful commentary on his podcast after every game. With a championship, he’ll be able to do so guilt-free and without fans telling him to stop, in spite of his mostly poor performance in the series.