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The Celtics played an inspired, gritty second half of this 2021-22 season, which is why they went into the postseason as a third-rail team nobody wanted to touch.

Considering they are in the NBA Finals, those fears have been justified. If you had them as the smart pick to make it out of the Eastern Conference, congrats.

But something went horribly wrong for the Celtics on Monday night at San Francisco’s Chase Center, and it’s not just that they were 104-94 losers to the Golden State Warriors in this getting-testier-by-the-moment series. The Celtics lost the game, sure, but they also lost their cool. They lost their way. They lost their mojo. And to hear Celtics coach Ime Udoka talk, they may also have lost out on some sleep during that “long-ass flight” (as Jayson Tatum referred to it) from Boston to San Francisco the other day.

No, Udoka didn’t march into the postgame interview room and announce that his guys were tired. But when a reporter asked if perhaps Tatum and Jaylen Brown were hindered by fatigue in the fourth quarter, which the Warriors opened with a 10-0 run and wound up outpointing the Celtics 29-20, the coach grabbed the branch.

“Could have been,” he said. “We ran them obviously a longer stretch to get back in the game in the third. Looked like our decision making wanted a little bit in the fourth. Could have been from that. Weren’t getting a whole lot of production off the bench. Went with them a little bit longer, being they got us back in it, and tried to use the timeouts for their rest.”

While it is true the Celtics went on a run in the third quarter — they outscored the Warriors 35-24, turning a 12-point deficit into a five-point lead at one point — it’s the fourth quarter people are going to remember if the Celtics don’t climb back this series. (That, and the jet-laggy Celtics falling behind 24-8 right out of the gate.)

But… of course the Celtics are fatigued. They’ve been playing postseason for nearly two months — four games against the Nets, seven games against the Bucks, seven games against the Heat, five games (and more to come) against the Warriors — but the sobering reality is that fatigue is as much on display during the NBA Finals as Stephen A. Smith and the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Fatigue is part of why you watch, because you want to see which players can laugh in their face.

Tatum scored 27 points but was just 1-for-5 with two missed free throws in the fourth quarter, when the Warriors outscored the Celtics by 15 points with him on the floor. What this means, alas, is that the Tatum Referendum — Superstar? Not a superstar? — will continue right on through the end of this series. And the “not a superstar” lobby is building momentum. Don’t believe me? Turn on the radio, right now, and listen for 30 seconds. As for Brown, who scored 18 points, he was just 1-for-4 and also minus-15 in the fourth quarter.

But if there’s a single snapshot that’ll haunt the Celtics if they don’t at least tie this series and force a Game 7, it’s what happened in the fourth quarter when Marcus Smart tried to sell a foul from Klay Thompson by falling to the floor and sliding halfway to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Smart didn’t get the call.

Thompson got an uncontested shot — as in, he had a couple of moments to measure it since nobody was near him — and nailed a 3-pointer from 27 feet, capping the 10-0 start to the fourth quarter.

Smart was spread out on the floor—yes, he had floor seats—as Thompson unleashed the shot.

Smart was not made available after the game. But Al Horford was asked about the back and forth with the officials, which has become a new Celtics tradition.

“Not our best moment,” he said. “We can’t let that affect our game. … We feel like we can control a lot of those things and it’s something we have to move on, and be better on Thursday.”

If it were a simple case of the Warriors winning the NBA championship largely on the strength of Steph Curry doing Steph Curry things, Celtics fans would be able to live with that. He is, after all, one of the great players in the game’s history. You don’t scorn greatness. You celebrate it, applaud it. Even if the greatness is being displayed by somebody who isn’t wearing your colors.

But this? Whining at the officials? Overselling a foul and then sitting on the floor waiting for a call that never came while the guy who hit you has moved on to hitting nothing but net? The coach being asked about fatigue and not taking the opportunity to point out that it’s the NBA Finals?

This is not how Celtics fans want to remember this team.

Right now, it’s impossible to think otherwise.

Let’s remember that practically every member of the Celtics has talked about looking up to the rafters at TD Garden and being inspired by all the championship banners and retired uniform numbers. Let’s remember, too, that every player on those championship teams, from Bill Russell in 1957 to Kevin Garnett in 2008, was rather fatigued when it was over. It’s just that it never came up.

(Photo by Marcus Smart: Kyle Terada/USA Today)

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