Jayson Tatum spent Day 262 of the Celtics’ 2021-22 season shuttling between media chores with a basketball tucked under his arm, seemingly a nod to the ball security woes that have complicated Boston’s quest to secure Banner 18.
It’s hard to remember the last time Tatum didn’t have a basketball within arm’s reach. This Celtics’ season is nearly nine months old at this point and Tatum sacrificed much of his summer before that to chase gold with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. You’d have to go back to the start of the COVID pandemic -- remember when we all spent April of 2020 freaking out that Tatum didn’t have a basketball hoop at this house? -- to find the last time Tatum had a true vacation from basketball.
There is undeniable wear and tear on Tatum given the workload he’s endured over the past 22 months, including the NBA Bubble, a quick turnaround to the 2020-21 season, the Olympics, and now Boston’s improbable surge to the 2022 Finals.
The Celtics have logged 23 playoff games over the past two months and Tatum's gas gauge was pointing below empty Monday amid a deluge of airballs in the fourth quarter of Boston’s Game 5 loss in San Francisco.
Tatum knows a much-needed break is coming but he is in no rush to get there.
“I’m not ready for the season to be over with,” Tatum said during an ESPN appearance Wednesday. “Get some rest tonight, be ready tomorrow, and do whatever it takes.”
It simply would not feel right for the Celtics' season to end with a whimper. This postseason trek demands a Game 7. No one on the Celtics needs two more cross-country flights given the absurd amount of air miles already logged -- potentially a postseason record -- but there isn’t a player in that locker room who wouldn’t endure 12 more hours in the sky for a winner-take-all showdown for the Larry O’Brien Trophy on Sunday.
The question, of course, is whether the Celtics can grind through once more to give themselves that opportunity.
Being back inside TD Garden for the final time this season should provide a jolt comparable to chugging an entire case of 5-Hour Energy. The Celtics will have to balance that emotional charge with playing with more focus.
Boston’s offense reverted to bad habits in the fourth quarter of Game 4 with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, then sputtered again in the first quarter of Game 5, complicating any hopes of sustaining a furious second-half comeback as the Warriors took a 3-2 series lead.
Having their backs against the wall has routinely produced the Celtics' best basketball. Tatum’s best outing came in Game 6 against Milwaukee, where he outdueled Giannis Antetokounmpo on the road as the Celtics won two straight to emerge in that series. Resiliency has been Boston’s hallmark this postseason and it needs another dose in Game 6 of the Finals.
"It hasn't been easy. It's been extremely tough. We've had some tough losses,” said Tatum. "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.”
The Celtics continue to project confidence despite the daunting challenge ahead of them. The previous 23 games in this playoff march have prepared Boston for this moment.
"We haven't backed down from a challenge all season,” said Jaylen Brown. "We look at it as no different now. It's unfortunate that sometimes those learning curves turn into losses. But we wear every experience as a badge of honor. We take everything that we learn into the next game. We put ourselves in the position to be in this series with a team that has won and done it before.”
There is undeniable mileage on the tires of Boston’s star players this postseason. At 943 total playoff minutes, Tatum has nearly 200 more minutes than any other non-Boston player. (Klay Thompson is fourth in the postseason at 751 minutes). Brown (876) and Horford (776) take spots Nos. 2 and 3 on the leaderboard. Marcus Smart (722 minutes) is seventh despite missing three games due to injury.
All this after Tatum was fourth in the NBA in total minutes (2,731) during the regular season. The only other player inside the top 50 for Boston was Smart (2,296).
The Celtics need more from their bench to take some stress off their stars. Grant Williams has endured his quietest series while Payton Pritchard and Derrick White have gone cold lately.
Boston is crossing its fingers that Robert Williams still has his recent bounce despite spending all six games of this series listed as questionable due to his balky left knee. After chasing a Finals appearance for so long, the Celtics hope 36-year-old Al Horford can give a bit more while recognizing more than anyone that these moments are guaranteed.
But much of the Game 6 burden falls on Tatum, Brown, and Smart. Like Tatum toting the basketball around on Wednesday, Boston’s primary ball-handlers have to value the ball at every turn. Boston’s stars need to avoid the desire to try to singlehandedly will the team when its offense is struggling and embrace the ball movement that allowed this team to thrive in the second half of the season. They need to hear Brad Stevens’ voice in their heads: Hit singles.
They also can’t get overwhelmed by the need to win two games to win this series. Tatum might have said it best after Boston’s Game 5 loss: The Celtics cannot win two games in one night. All they can do is try to take advantage of home court and will this thing back to the Bay.
Anything can happen in Game 7. But only if the Celtics get there.
This team didn’t come this far to let it slip away. A much-needed break looms. Until then, they’ve got to embrace the moment and let the adrenaline carry them to a finish line they hope they don’t encounter until Sunday night.