The very first time the Celtics had possession on Monday night, Jayson Tatum drove past Otto Porter Jr., got into the lane and turned to kick the ball out to Marcus Smart. While Smart was open, Tatum’s pass was off target and sailed into the crowd for a turnover.
A few hours later, after the Boston Celtics had lost Game 5 of the 2022 NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors, 104-94, to fall into a 3-2 series hole, Tatum sat at the podium and said what everyone has been saying for the entire postseason:
“Yeah, we got to be better. We’re hard to beat when we don’t turn the ball over. Clearly, we’re easy to beat when we do turn the ball over.”
Turnovers were once again the main story for the Celtics. They simply couldn’t take care of the ball, coughing it up 18 times, which led to 22 points for the Warriors. In a low-scoring game decided by just 10 points, those are the margins that swing the outcome — and perhaps the series.
For the Finals, the Warriors have turned the Celtics’ 78 turnovers into 103 points. That’s the third most points off turnovers through the first five games of a Finals since 1990, per ESPN Stats and Info. In the 32 years since then, only the Chicago Bulls in 1991 and 1992 have profited more off opponent turnovers.
That’s a compounding issue for the Celtics, who are turning the ball over on 16.3 percent of their possessions in the Finals. On nearly one out of every five possessions, they aren’t even giving themselves a chance to score, which is bad enough. As a result they’re also making it easier for the Warriors to score on the other end by allowing them to play in transition instead of against a set defense.
This was the third time during this series that the Celtics have had 16 or more turnovers. All three of those games have been defeats. For the entire playoffs, the Celtics are now 1-7 when they turn it over 16-plus times, and 13-2 when they manage to stay under 16 turnovers.
Of course, the Warriors deserve a lot of credit. They weren’t one of the best defensive teams in the league this season by accident. They’re smart, well-coached, and have amped up the intensity and pressure in recent games.
“They’re a really good defensive team,” Jaylen Brown said. “Disciplined and sound. They’ve forced us to do what obviously we don’t do best. We just got to continue to recognize the game, see the game and make in-game adjustments. Take care of the ball when it comes down to it.”
At the same time, so much of this turnover issue has been a result of the Celtics’ sloppiness and inexplicable mistakes. Inaccurate passes, losing track of court position, being careless with the ball, poor decision making — it was all there in Game 5, just as it has been throughout the playoffs.
Middle of the second quarter, already trailing by 12 in a must-win game, Tatum comes up the court and just whips a pass behind Robert Williams III. Draymond Green takes it the other way and gets to the line for two free throws. Plays like that have nothing to do with the other team, and they cannot happen in the NBA Finals.
Third quarter now, Celtics are making their run and on the verge of taking the lead. Al Horford grabs a rebound and races up the floor into traffic and tries to execute a dribble handoff on the run with Jaylen Brown, despite the fact that the Celtics don’t have the numbers. They mishandle the ball and the Warriors wind up with two free throws for Klay Thompson. There was no reason to force the action there. Once you see you don’t have an advantage, just make the smart play and reset up top.
“Another game with too many turnovers,” Brown said. “It cost us.”
The Celtics weren’t themselves in Game 5. Or, perhaps, they were, and that’s the problem. They couldn’t get out of their own way on Monday night, and now they’re on the brink.