The play could have been a turning point. To start the third quarter of Monday’s Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors, the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown had made two trips to the free-throw line and, miracle of miracles, knocked down all four shots. Jayson Tatum had sidestepped behind a screen to sink a 3-pointer. The next trip down, Brown drove hard and almost lost his footing — it’s not a Brown sequence unless the word careening applies — but nevertheless collapsed the Golden State defense and flung a pass out to Tatum, who had snuck into an unmarked zone behind the arc. Another triple, a 12-point halftime lead cut to 2, and a couple of prodigiously gifted and highly exasperating players on the same page.
It didn’t last, of course. The Celtics now trail the Warriors three games to two, thanks this time not to a Stephen Curry outburst but to Boston’s All-Stars spending key stretches of the contest appearing to dribble and pass in oven mitts. Turnovers have been the team’s bellwether all postseason — when they hold the number below 16, they are 14-3; when they hit that mark, they are 0-6 — and their best players have doubled as the biggest offenders. (Monday night, Tatum and Brown tallied half of Boston’s 18 cough-ups.) But the turnover issue is also a microcosm of where the Tatum-Brown partnership now finds itself, a stressful, successful half-decade in.
It’s not, as was often wondered in and around Boston, that their ceiling isn’t high enough to be championship-worthy; a late spring spent knocking off Hall-of-Famers and defending champs has shown that. It’s that, at this stage, their floor might be too low.
“We definitely thought about and had conversations about trading for a number of the great players that were sort of thought to be available over the past 10 years,” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck told The New York Times last week, adding, “we valued our guys more, apparently, than the market did.”
Tatum and Brown are the sorts of players — effective but not world-beatingly so — that the NBA tends to define by what they lack. It is true that they haven’t found the individual top-of-class skills or stylistic synergy of, say, Curry and peak Klay Thompson, that they fall into bouts of redundancy and toe-stepping. But it is also true that, over the course of the playoffs, the basic problems they present opponents have outpaced those they present themselves.
If neither has much hope of reaching Kevin Durant-esque efficiency from the wing — Tatum’s effective field-goal percentage, in his fifth season, leveled out at 52.6; Brown’s was 54.1 in his sixth — both have maintained good-enough status in that regard while shouldering some of the heaviest burdens in the league. Tatum’s usage rate over the regular season came in at 32 percent and Brown’s at 29.5, putting each in the 97th percentile of his position group according to Cleaning the Glass.1 Tatum has also grown visibly as a playmaker even within this season, spotting double-teams and help-side rotations earlier and passing more quickly. His assist average, a career-best 4.4 per game over the regular season, has jumped to 6.1 in the playoffs.
The Celtics’ whole deal is locking in to historic levels on defense and getting enough points on the other end to edge ahead, and since the team’s midyear turnaround, Tatum and Brown have supplied the crucial margins. The last time Boston faced a 3-2 deficit, Tatum ripped off a 46-point night against the Milwaukee Bucks. In the Celtics’ comeback from a 15-point deficit in Game 1 of the Finals, Brown put up a 24-7-5 line bookended in the first quarter by a floor-spanning stuff-and-jam sequence and in the last by a 10-point flurry. If their game isn’t the hoops calculus that the Warriors use at their best, the Celtics’ duo can rely on a simpler math: It’s tough to stop both of them at once.
It gets a lot easier, though, when they stop themselves. Monday night’s game was a taxonomy of screw-ups: kick-outs soaring into benches, dribbles bouncing off shoes, passes hot-air-ballooning into the lightning storm of the Golden State defense. With seven minutes left in the game and the Warriors having regained a 9-point lead, Brown got picked clean by Gary Payton II; the next trip down, as he drove against Curry, the ball turned into a bar of soap.
To call these errors self-inflicted, and to suggest that all the Celtics need to do to salvage their title hopes is pay better attention, undersells their opponents’ influence; if the Warriors’ defense isn’t quite as stifling as Boston’s, it’s close. But the case of the butterfingers hasn’t been Golden State-specific. (The shotmaking, on the other hand, has: Tatum’s and Brown’s effective field-goal percentages have dropped to 46.6 and 46.8, respectively, during the Finals.) Brown’s turnover percentage over the regular season was 12; it’s grown to 13.5 in the postseason, in the bottom quarter of wings on playoff teams. Tatum’s was 11 over the regular season and has shot up to an abhorrent 14.8 in the playoffs. When Andrew Wiggins pestered him into an extra shuffle of his feet during a fourth-quarter drive Monday night, Tatum set an NBA record with his 95th turnover of the postseason.
Some teams can withstand such recklessness, or even write it off as the cost of doing business. (Throughout their dynasty, the Warriors have been willing to suffer sloppy passes as the tradeoff for sublime ones.) The Celtics aren’t one of those. They have been and remain a sturdy enough club that they don’t need the absolute best of Tatum and Brown to pull off a championship comeback. But they can’t survive long stretches of their worst habits.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.