Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown looked like they ran out of gas.
The two Celtics stars – so instrumental in leading the C’s back in the game during a magnificent third quarter – faded down the stretch of a woeful fourth quarter of their Game 5 loss to the Warriors on Monday night, sending them to the brink of elimination in the NBA Finals.
Was fatigue a factor?
“Could have been,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said.
On a night when Warriors star Steph Curry struggled mightily shooting the ball and opened a crack for the C’s, Boston’s two stars couldn’t do enough to lead them to a road victory. Tatum was better than he was in Game 4, but was invisible in the fourth quarter. And Brown was not nearly good enough.
The two combined for nine – Tatum with four, Brown with five – of the Celtics’ 18 turnovers as frustrating giveaways continued to haunt the C’s. And they combined for 10 points on just 2-for-9 shooting in the final quarter as the Warriors ran away.
It didn’t help that their surrounding cast gave them almost no support – particularly Derrick White, Al Horford and Grant Williams, who combined for 13 points over 70 minutes. But Tatum and Brown, who were so sharp in the third, were anything but in the fourth. They both played 44 minutes, and both played the entire second half without a rest until there was 1:19 remaining, when Udoka emptied his bench in a 16-point game.
“We ran (Tatum and Brown) obviously a longer stretch to get back in the game in the third,” Udoka said. “Looked like our decision making wanted a little bit in the fourth. Could have been from that (fatigue). Weren’t getting a whole lot of production off the bench. Went with them a little bit longer, being they got us back in, and tried to use the timeouts for their rest.
“Got away a little bit from what got us back in the game in the third. Decision making and fatigue could be a part of it, the reason why.”
The C’s trailed by 12 after a miserable first half when Tatum and Brown ignited a rally to start the second half. Brown scored four points after drawing two quick fouls on Klay Thompson before Tatum drilled three consecutive 3-pointers. The duo scored or assisted on the Celtics’ first 24 points of the half as they took their first lead and seemed to snatch momentum.
But it all went backwards in the fourth. The offense wasn’t as free-flowing, and Tatum and Brown got caught in bad situations against the Warriors’ relentless and physical defense – and like their sloppy, stagnant first half, it led to bad offense and bad shots.
“Playing in the crowd too much has caused a lot of these turnovers,” Udoka said. “When we’re at our best, it’s simple ball movement. I think the third quarter showed that. The drive and kick was beautiful, was working, getting guys wide-open shots. Like I said, I don’t know if it was fatigue affects the decision making a little bit there, or just physically don’t have the burst to finish it off.
“That has been a problem for us obviously at times in this series, quarters specifically where we’ve gotten a little stagnant. When we do it well it works, it looks good, we get shots we want. We slow it down, play in the crowd, those turnovers pop up in the bad offense.”
With 44 more minutes each on Monday, Tatum and Brown have played the most minutes of any player this postseason, and no one else is remotely close to them. Tatum leads all players with 943 minutes, Brown is second with 876 and Horford is third with 776. Thompson and Curry lead the Warriors with 751 and 724, respectively.
Tatum and Brown, at 24 and 25 years old, are young enough to shoulder that workload. But they’re certainly playing more than they ever have, carrying a large burden in addition to the uncharted territory of their first Finals experience. On Monday at least, the minutes without rest in the second half looked like it caught up to them.
Tatum has averaged 41 minutes per game over the Celtics’ 23 postseason games, which have included two grueling seven-game series. He looked gassed in the fourth on Monday, when several of his shots from him were short and he even missed back-to-back free throws on one trip, but he dismissed fatigue.
“I had a couple shots that were short,” Tatum said. “I just got to not fade as much. Use my legs. I mean, you’re going to be a little more tired in the fourth than you are in the first quarter.
“You got to get your legs a little more under you on a couple of those shots. Give yourself a chance.”
Added Udoka on Tatum: “Spend a lot. Obviously, him playing 44 minutes, he was one of our main guys rolling. When he got it going in the third, we rolled him a little bit longer there. The bench production wasn’t as sharp as usual, so we ran Jayson longer. Some of that fatigue and decision making could play a part in the fourth quarter.”
Brown had his worst game of the Finals, shooting 5-for-18 for 18 points with five turnovers. But he didn’t use fatigue as an excuse, even as he played nearly the entire second half.
“I wanted to be on the floor. I trusted me to be out there,” Brown said. “Over the course of the game, we made some good plays. We were in it. I felt like we just couldn’t get over the hump tonight.
“Tough loss, but got the opportunity to even it back up on our home floor, push a Game 7. I’m looking forward to that challenge.”