SAN FRANCISCO — This certainly wasn’t what the Boston Celtics had in mind when they handed out T-shirts last week emblazoned with the slogan, “It’s all about 18.”
Eighteen turnovers. Eighteen head-slapping, launch-a-remote-at-your-television turnovers. In the biggest moment of the season. The Celtics couldn’t get out of their own way Monday night, coughing the ball up 18 times as the Golden State Warriors raced away at the finish line of a Game 5 win at the Chase Center.
At times, it feels like Boston is quite literally throwing away a championship. They need to win two games in a row to emerge with Banner 18.
For weeks now we’ve contended that there’s only one team left in the playoffs that could beat the Celtics: themselves. The Warriors deserve credit for the way they’ve ratcheted up their defense at times and for the otherworldly offensive outbursts by Stephen Curry. But the Celtics are the better team; they simply refuse to play like it long enough to force the issue.
Instead, the Celtics produce the sort of turnovers that would cause your junior high basketball coach to lose their mind. And even on a night when Curry looks human -- not hitting a single 3-pointer in a postseason game for the first time in roughly his entire existence -- the Celtics’ turnovers sealed their fate.
On Boston’s first offensive possession, Jayson Tatum split two defenders, drew a crowd near the rim, and threw a pass that hit a front-row fan in the numbers. (Marcus Smart, the intended receiver, didn’t even reach out for the errant toss.) It was a harbinger of what was to come.
Yes, the Warriors have clogged up the paint and made it difficult for the Celtics to drive throughout this series. But so many of Boston’s giveaways were seemingly unforced. For all their offensive talents, Tatum and Jaylen Brown sometimes dribble as if the ball has been slathered in baby oil.
Just look at this collection of turnovers off drives from Game 5 …
The Celtics routinely drive without a purpose. Too often they leave their feet without knowing where they plan to pass the ball. They rush into a crowd hoping for whistles. Rather than going strong through contact, the Celtics too often cough up the ball on the first swipe from a defender.
This is not a new issue. Ball security has been in the spotlight throughout these playoffs. The line of demarcation has long ago been established at 16.
Boston is 0-6 when it turns the ball over 16 times or more this postseason and 14-3 when that number is anything less (and one of those losses was with 15 giveaways).
The Celtics were able to get away with their miscues against the Khris Middleton-less Bucks and the offensively-challenged Miami Heat. The Warriors haven’t exactly been otherworldly on the offensive end in this series, averaging a manageable 105.2 points per game, but that’s been more than enough most nights as the Celtics endure painful stretches of poor offensive play.
The Celtics simply cannot hang when they are giving up so many possessions. It’s not just the turnovers, either. Boston missed a head-shaking 10 free throw attempts on Monday night in a 10-point game. They drew two technical fouls and let the referees get inside their heads. (You’re not allowed to complain about officiating when you shoot yourself in the foot so often, plus Boston is dominating the free-throw attempt battle in this series).
Boston just can’t make its life easy. Even at the end of what had been a dazzling third-quarter rally, the Celtics went too quick on a final shot and left enough time for Jordan Poole to drill a midcourt heave that reenergized the crowd and sent the Warriors into the final quarter with both a lead and some much-needed momentum.
The playoff grind might be catching up with the Celtics and Tatum’s inability to even hit the rim in the fourth quarter seems to confirm that. But that’s no excuse for the double-digit first-half turnovers.
The Celtics have two choices: Bring the necessary focus and try to get this thing back to The Bay for a Game 7 where anything can happen. Or spend the foreseeable future wondering what could have been if they weren’t their own worst enemy.