If any nihilistic thoughts tormented him after a game in which he scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a losing effort against Golden State, he suppressed them.
“You better be confident, right?” Tatum said. “We ain’t got to win two in one day. We just got to win one game on Thursday. We’ve been in this situation before. So it’s not over. Got to win on Thursday.”
The idea that Boston knows what to do when cornered in a playoff series has been repeated by the Celtics many times this postseason. They did it again Monday night after falling to a 3-2 series deficit in the N.B.A. finals, and now they face elimination on Thursday in Boston. But the assuredness with which they spoke in previous series was missing.
“Our faith got to be at an all-time high,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said. “Our faith got to continue to be there. We got to play as a team, as a unit. All season long it’s kind of been like us versus everybody. I look at it as no different now.”
Center Robert Williams said: “We have to look each other in the eye now. Our backs are up against the wall.”
What’s familiar is that the Celtics are in an elimination game.
They have played in three during this season’s playoffs and advanced by winning all of them.
They were down 3-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, then won the next two games to reach the conference finals. There, the Miami Heat forced a Game 7, which Boston won, 100-96.
Often it seemed the Celtics were making their own path harder than it needed to be, giving into lulls when they played in games that were not must-wins. They had an opportunity to finish their series against the Heat at home in six games but couldn’t. They gave up 47 points to Miami’s Jimmy Butler that night. They have been blown out by the same teams they have beat convincingly, suggesting a lack of focus.
Their disregard has manifested through missteps like careless turnovers — the Celtics have given up 16.8 turnovers per game in each of their losses during the playoffs and only 12.8 in wins this postseason. They gave up 18 turnovers on Monday night.
Their offense has gone stale at times, but their defense has helped save them.
Before Game 5, Boston Coach Ime Udoka said the Celtics would have been 3-1 in the series if their offense had simply played better. Then they started Game 5 by missing their first 12 3-pointers.
What’s changed now is that Golden State seems to have decoded the Celtics. Boston’s physicality no longer scares them. Shut down Stephen Curry? Golden State still won.
For most of the playoffs, each time Boston lost a game, it recovered in the next. Game 5 was the first time this postseason that the Celtics had lost twice in a row — the result of a disparity in poise and adaptability, with the young Boston team on the lower end.
As the series has progressed, Golden State has seemed more and more ready to pounce on the Celtics’ weaknesses.
Celtics forward Al Horford said he felt that his team was “almost playing into their hands, some of the things they want us to do, which is taking contested midrange shots and probably play a little faster than we want at times. I feel like that’s part of the reason our offense hasn’t been clicking like it needs to be.”
In Game 5, the Celtics also fell victim to their frustrations with the officiating, which compounded their offensive struggles. The team complained and argued for most of the night.
“Probably something we shouldn’t do as much, and we all did too much,” Udoka said.
What’s also unfamiliar for the Celtics as they face elimination this time is the pressure that comes with this stage of the season.
After Boston took a 2-1 lead in the series, all the talk of Golden State’s advantage in championship experience seemed nonsensical. It seemed, at the time, that the Celtics lost that one game only because they lost focus, as they sometimes do. It seemed, at that time, that Boston was too big, strong, athletic and young for Golden State’s experience to make much of a difference.
But now the series has reached a point that these Celtics have never seen before.
“We understand what we need to do,” Curry said. “It’s just about going out and executing, trying to bottle up your emotions, knowing how hard a closeout game is.”
As Boston searches for answers, Golden State smells blood.
Said Klay Thompson: “I’ve never been so excited to go to Boston, I’ll tell you that.”