Chris Forsberg

Jayson Tatum, Celtics still searching for Golden State of mind

Boston's stars were outshined when it mattered most again Tuesday night.

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Let’s not dance around it. The Boston Celtics' loss on Tuesday night hurts more because it was Golden State on the other side. Because Steph Curry won’t stop terrorizing the Celtics in big moments. Because that team is a particularly painful reminder of where Boston is trying so desperately to get to.

To be clear, no game in which the Celtics fumble away a 17-point lead, go painfully stagnant in the fourth quarter, and lose in overtime will ever feel good. But when it’s Golden State on the other side, it makes the loss sting that much worse.

For all their warts, the Warriors -- with an aging roster, Draymond Green out due to suspension, and a sub-.500 record in a talent-filled Western Conference — still know how to finish games. They are cockroaches. Every time you think you’ve finally squished ‘em, there’s Curry telling you “Night, night” time a few minutes later.

The Warriors are not overwhelmed by the moment. They only get stronger in a brighter spotlight. The Celtics, for all their successes, are still trying to figure out how to tap into that mindset.

It'd be easy to dismiss a Tuesday night loss on the West Coast if it was just about any other team. The Celtics had a fairly compelling list of reasons that Tuesday’s game might have slipped away.

Jayson Tatum rolled his left ankle in the first quarter and played much of his 41 minutes at less than full strength. Boston was also operating without starting center Kristaps Porzingis, whose presence was missed on both ends. The Celtics are playing five games in seven days with a 3,000-mile flight stuffed in the middle.

But nobody likes excuses. The Celtics missed a billion threes. They couldn’t get anything to drop around the basket in crunch time. They couldn’t foul out Curry despite him picking up his fifth foul of the night midway through the third quarter. In typical Curry fashion, he was the hero in getting the Warriors to the finish line of an ultra-satisfying win despite playing his final 17 minutes with those five fouls.

We can obsess about timeouts -- Tatum’s off-balance pull-up 3-pointer at the end of regulation was less than ideal -- and Boston’s shot selection -- 47 of their staggering 58 3-pointers were open or better -- but Boston shot just 27.6% on wide-open looks (6+ feet from nearest defender).

The bottom line is that Boston is still trying to figure out how to thrive in the crunchiest of crunch-time moments.

Tatum’s ankle didn’t help matters, but he hasn’t quite been his superstar self this month. The Eastern Conference Player of the Month for October/November is shooting just 43.5 percent overall in eight December games, including a gnarly (in the bad way) 30.5 percent on 8.1 3-point attempts per game.

Tatum, typically a net rating wizard, is at a meager +3.3 in December. The Celtics’ net rating spikes to a team-best +12.2 in Tatum’s 98 minutes on the bench this month. It’s downright baffling that Boston can be dominating the non-Tatum minutes and yet lost the two biggest games of the month in the In-Season Tournament quarterfinal in Indy and Tuesday’s visit to Golden State.

Tuesday night’s loss isn’t all on Tatum, particularly given his ankle woes. But sometimes it’s just that simple: The Warriors' best player was great when it mattered most, while Tatum and the Celtics lost their way.

Everyone on Boston’s roster will lament missed chances. Jaylen Brown smoked a late layup, Al Horford had a bad turnover in overtime, and Derrick White couldn’t get the big shot to drop on a night he was otherwise spectacular. Most nights, you might just shrug it all off.

But it’s Steph. And it’s the Warriors. And even if it wasn’t the exact same script as the 2022 NBA Finals, it brings back those dark memories.

The Celtics arrived in San Francisco with a 21-5 record a year ago, hit a Golden State speed bump, and dropped four of their next five overall. There are still three more tough games remaining on this trip, starting with the second night of a back-to-back against a rested Sacramento team on Wednesday, and the Celtics need to dust themselves off.

For all the strides they've made, there’s still work to do. The Celtics still need to be better in the biggest moments. They are still trying to figure out how to operate with a Golden State of mind in those crunch-time situations.

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