BOSTON – The Warriors will return home on Friday in anticipation of a parade or Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It all depends on whether they can complete two difficult tasks in one night: win the third game in a row in this final and do it in TD Garden.
Both are doable, unless the Celtics take on basketball — losses have decimated them lately — and something more from their rotation, starting with Jason Tatum.
This is one of four things to look out for Thursday in Game 6, the do-or-die scenarios for the home team:
1. History says the Celtics are a great team.
So the Celtics are back on the tightrope, with the wind raging, no insurance, no tomorrow. Such is life when you looked at a demise three times this postseason and lived to tell it.
This experience gives them hope. They are 3-0 in elimination games, two of which they beat defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and two of those three games on the road.
“We won those games,” Tatum said. “I felt that I and everyone else did everything possible to win. That’s the kind of mindset you should have.”
So what lessons can the Celtics take from those games for Thursday, and if need be, for Sunday? Well, they need Tatum to go up about the same as he did in Game 6 against the Bucks when he scored 46 points. And they could have used someone from the support team to give them a nice surprise, like Grant Williams did when he made seven 3-pointers in the next game. And they could use some luck too, like when potential game winner Jimmy Butler bounced in the final seconds of Game 7 against Miami.
Barring any or all of that, the Celtics will definitely go off the rope this time around. And they know it.
“When we were in this position before, we were at our best,” Williams said. “That’s where you want to be.”
“We’ve played three elimination games, won 7 games, but that just can’t be relied upon,” said coach Ime Udoka.
2. It’s not too late for Klay Moment
Thompson has spent this entire streak – the entire playoffs, in fact – expressing how happy he is, describing how far he’s come from those dreary days of injury rehab, and it’s all true. A year ago, Thompson wasn’t even involved in fights. Now he’s in the final and rushing around the court.
He has several flashbacks from the days before his injury that give him hope and faith that the best is yet to come. Most might think it will be next season. Thompson thinks this season is like Game 6 or Game 7 if need be, despite hitting 38% this series.
Whenever Game 6 is mentioned in his name, it reflexively means the night of his career at Oklahoma City in 2016 when he scored 41 points (including a playoff-record 11 from deep). Most recently, in another Game 6, he helped close out the Grizzlies last month with 30 points.
Even on the night when things went wrong for him physically — Game 6 in the Finals against the Raptors when he injured his knee — Thompson scored 30 points in 32 minutes and tried to get back into the game after limping.
“I understand that I have a really good streak of 6 games,” he said. “I don’t know how long this will last. Hope through [Thursday]. I want to match it. At the same time, I don’t want to go out there and play heroball… I just want to have a good evening and win the game. I want to get on the field, play for free, trust my teammates. Great things will happen if I do these two things.”
It sounds like a concession, but Thompson lacked confidence and shooting in this series. Expect him to be pushy when needed, especially in the game at stake if it’s close in the final moments.
3. Ball defense starts with Marcus Smart
Smart is a very good player, sometimes bordering on an All-Star, respected in the league, headstrong, tenacious and obviously an elite defender. However, he did not always demonstrate the ability to be a natural and instinctive point guard.
This is not a shocking revelation. The Celtics wanted Kyrie Irving to fill the position instead of Smart. Then they wanted Kemba Walker instead of Smart. When the two did not last for various reasons, Smart was chosen, in part due to exhaustion.
And the Celtics made it to the Finals this year with Smart. It means something. But Smart is not a pure point guard in the sense that he tweaks his teammates’ shots to make them better. In just three of 23 playoff games this season, he’s racked up double-digit assists. It allows Tatum and Brown to basically create their own footage. This often works because both are improved playmakers themselves, but Tatum and Brown can tire out when they constantly have to create a game against a top defensive team like Golden State, which is why the Celtics make so many mistakes. They lack a point guard who makes it easier for teammates to play.
That’s why the Warriors will continue to throw double teams at Tatum, who can become confused and become a bad passer when trapped and lacking open eyes.
“They are trying to get him out at a certain time,” Udoka said. “But he has to read this and understand that he will be doubled and will be a bait from time to time, and when that happens, get everyone involved and make them pay.”
But the best ball care starts with Smart and Tatum. The Celtics’ churn was fairly widespread among the core players in the rotation.
“That’s something we need to improve as a team,” said Grant Williams. “Take care of the ball, you will win the game. Don’t care about the ball, you will lose the game.”
4. Will the Celtics or Warriors finally play at their level?
It is strange to say this, but five games before the final we did not see the best results of any of the teams. This is a far cry from previous rounds of the postseason, when the Warriors and Celtics were fully loaded for at least a few games. But this series? In every game, both showed weaknesses and received no-shows or no-shows from key players in the rotation. Is it finally the night this trend ends?
Here’s what the Warriors consistently lack: Draymond Green made half a dozen key stops and kept Robert Williams III off the glass and hit double figures this time; scoring breakthrough by Jordan Poole; Klay Thompson pulls his Splash Brothers weight; and Kevon Looney, who had career nights in the West Finals.
Here’s what the Celtics lack: Tatum’s efficiency; the best selection of shots from Brown; firm decision-making by Smart and the arrival of Al Horford, who hadn’t played a role since the first game.
And this is not to mention the schematism from the benches. All in all, the Celtics vs. Warriors, at times entertaining and tense at others, are still waiting for one team to come out on top and show dominance. They are both capable; they have already shown it, but not against each other. It’s hard to imagine a final without someone’s best performance.
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Sean Powell has covered the NBA for over 25 years. You can send him an email here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The opinions on this page do not necessarily reflect those of the NBA, its clubs, or Turner Broadcasting.