SAN FRANCISCO — A backbreaking barrage of 3-pointers that leaves the opponent cloaked in helplessness, searching for answers from a higher power. Players on the bench celebrating with earned arrogance every time the ball splashes through the net with no resistance from the rim. A scoring run that leaves you scouring the record books, unable to fathom that something this devastating has ever happened before.
In the first-ever NBA Finals game at Chase Center, that was supposed to be the Golden State Warriors’ story — their return to the highest echelon of the basketball universe. Instead the Boston Celtics went on an unprecedented run in the fourth quarter, sparked by lights-out shooting and pinpoint ball-movement, to come away with a 120-108 Game 1 win in San Francisco, draining the life from what had been an electrically rabid sellout crowd.
Golden State’s too-good-to-be-true narrative was already being written midway through the first quarter. Stephen Curry was on an unstoppable heater that only he’s capable of, going 6-for-8 from 3-point range en route to 21 points in the opening frame. Fast forward to the second half, when a trademark Warriors third-quarter run turned a their two-point halftime deficit into a 15-point lead with just over two minutes remaining.
A 38-point third quarter of that nature has been a knockout blow for many an unfortunate opponent over the last eight seasons of Warriors basketball. To say Boston responded would be one of the biggest understatements of the NBA’s 75-year history.
When people think of the Warriors, they probably think of 3-pointers — long-distance flurries from Curry and Klay Thompson stand above all other marksmen in basketball lore. On Thursday, though, Boston used the Warriors’ beloved weapon against them.
The Celtics outscored Golden State, 40-16, in the final frame, made all the more overwhelming by the blistering 9-for-12 3-point shooting they rained down upon the Bay Area and its fans. At one point, they made seven consecutive 3-pointers, the last one by Al Horford giving his team a six-point lead which, given the imbalance of momentum at the time, seemed virtually insurmountable.
The turnaround was all the more remarkable given that Jayson Tatum, Boston’s leading scorer who just earned the Eastern Conference finals MVP, was held to 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting, facing various aggressive defensive looks throughout the night including a box-and-one. His 13 assists, however, epitomized a Celtics team — bolstered by the messaging of head coach Ime Udoka — committed to making the right play, no matter how simple, trusting that it would eventually yield positive results.
“They do a great job of helping and things like that. So, you know, obviously it’s just as simple as if you draw two, find somebody that’s open,” Tatum said after Game 1. “That’s what I was just trying to do.”
It wasn’t just that the Celtics made 3s — they were 21 for 41 for the game — it was the way they were setting them up. They moved the ball quickly, penetrating into the paint and kicking out to players in perfect position with even more perfect passes. Take a look at this play where the Celtics rattle off four passes in six seconds, leading to an open 3 for Horford, who set an NBA record for players making their Finals debut with six 3-pointers on the night.
Dare we say, that ball movement looks Warriors-esque.
The Celtics also used small-ball, a Golden State staple of years past, to dominate the fourth quarter on both ends. The unit on the court when Boston finally took the lead was Horford at center, along with Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and Payton Pritchard. Less than three minutes later, the Celtics had developed a six-point advantage and had played Warriors center Kevon Looney off the court. Steve Kerr countered with the “Poole Party” lineup of Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole — which has sputtered after looking unbeatable against the Denver Nuggets in the first round — but it was unable to plug the gaping holes in the Warriors’ dam that the Celtics had furiously broken away.
The attack was so widespread that the Warriors had nobody to key in on. Horford, Brown, White and Marcus Smart made two 3s apiece in the fourth quarter. Pritchard added one. “Strength in Numbers” has been the Warriors’ motto for years, but on Thursday it certainly applied to the Celtics.
“We pride ourselves on everybody being able to contribute on both ends,” Udoka said after the game. “That’s rewarding, especially on a night when your best guy has an off night.”
Defensively, the Celtics went to a lot more switching and pre-switching in the fourth quarter in order to limit Curry’s shooting and the Warriors’ penetration. Udoka said the small unit played also played with more physicality and “seemed to wear [the Warriors] down a little bit.” They held Golden State to 6-of-15 shooting in the fourth quarter, including 1-for-6 from 3-point range, before the benches were emptied in the final minute, and forced as many turnovers as the Warriors had assists. Overall, the small-ball lineup paid dividends for Boston, and it’s something to watch as the series progresses.
In a way, it was fitting that these Celtics climbed out of a major deficit in their first NBA Finals game — after all, their regular season was marked by an improbable act of switch-flipping. After a mediocre start, they found themselves 25-25 on Jan. 28. From that point on, they went 26-7 with a net rating of plus-13.8, five points better than the closest challenger, and earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics know how to fight back because they’ve been fighting back all year long, and Udoka continued to preach resilience as the Warriors extended their lead in the third quarter.
“We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been through a lot of experiences, a lot of losses. We know what it takes to win,” Brown said after Game 1. “I give credit to every guy in that locker room from top to bottom. We got a great, resilient group. The chain is only as strong at its weakest link.”
The strangest part about the playoffs, and particularly the Finals, is that as soon as the final buzzer sounds on Game 1, it’s all about Game 2. Both teams will look at the film and make adjustments, knowing that the complexion of Sunday’s rematch could look absolutely nothing like the opener. But on Thursday the Celtics affirmed what they’ve figured out over the last five months — they believe they have what it takes to be NBA champions, and nothing can deter them from that mindset.
“We can’t get too high and we can’t get too low. We played very well, but we have to match that energy the next game, and we understand that,” Smart said. “We all know this game is a game of runs. You don’t go into the game planning to play bad. Things happen. You just got to find a way.”