The Warriors have made life miserable for most opponents during this latest ascension, so the Celtics’ challenge Friday would be significant regardless of available personnel.
Then it was announced that Al Horford and Grant Williams would miss the game after testing positive for COVID-19, and Dennis Schröder would be sidelined because of a non-COVID illness, raising the degree of difficulty a few notches.
When the Celtics fell behind by 20 in the first half, with Steph Curry dancing and splashing off-balance 3-pointers, it looked as if the night could turn into a romp. But these Celtics, for all their faults, often at least make things interesting.
In this case they charged back and actually took a fourth-quarter lead. Ultimately, however, their execution was not quite crisp enough, as the Warriors held on for a 111-107 win.
“There are no moral victories,” guard Marcus Smart said. “I think we’ve had our fair share of those.”
Boston’s execution needed to be near-perfect to make up for early wobbles, and there were simply too many missed opportunities, clumsy moments, and bad bounces.
Smart fouled Curry on a 3-point heave from beyond midcourt with less than one second left in the second quarter, and coach Ime Udoka exacerbated the issue by picking up a technical foul to complain about it.
“That was kind of like a gut punch,” Jayson Tatum said of the play.
Boston missed six foul shots during its powerful third-quarter comeback that could have been significantly more powerful if a few of them went in. For the Warriors, meanwhile, Andre Iguodala heaved in a 3-pointer just before the shot clock went off in the third quarter, and in the fourth a pass bounced off Curry and landed right in the hands of Draymond Green, who went up for a layup.
Despite all of this, and despite all of the absences, Boston had a chance. But the margin for error was simply too thin while facing a deficit this large against a team this good.
“Love the effort and fight to get back in,” Udoka said. “It’s tough when you dig yourself that big a hole.”
Smart acknowledged that intensity remained an issue at the start — a season-long problem that continues to resurface.
“It’s come to the point now where if you’re not going to play hard and you’re not going to give it your everything, then you need to go sit down,” Smart said. “We can take losing, but we can’t take losing when it’s on our effort.”
The Celtics have lost four of their last five games as they navigate this unforgiving section of their schedule that will offer no obvious breaks in the immediate future, either. Their record slipped back below .500 with more than one third of this season now complete.
The team will likely remain shorthanded for Saturday’s game against the Knicks at TD Garden. Players must complete at least two negative COVID tests within a 24-hour period in order to be cleared to return, and all of these recent positives occurred Friday morning.
Also, forward Romeo Langford suffered a neck injury late in the first quarter Friday and did not return. His availability for the New York game remains unclear. Boston could potentially welcome back Schröder, at least, since he was out because of a non-COVID illness.
Tatum had 27 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists to lead Boston on Friday, and Jaylen Brown added 20 points and 9 rebounds. Curry paced the Warriors with 30 points, but Andrew Wiggins (27 points) was most essential during Golden State’s powerful start.
He overpowered Boston’s wing players such as Langford and Aaron Nesmith for easy turnaround jumpers, and then consistently found himself wide open for 3-pointers during a stretch of lapses by Boston’s defense.
“I didn’t love our physicality on him, let him walk into a lot of 3s,” Udoka said. “We didn’t pick him up with the same urgency we had with Curry to start.”
The Celtics trailed by 14 points at halftime and during the break Boston’s coaches showed clips of the missteps and pleaded for a renewed level of intensity. Boston’s defense locked in and held the Warriors to just 14 points during the third quarter, and a Tatum 3-pointer with 11:25 left in the fourth gave the Celtics an 84-82 lead.
But the Warriors did not craft the NBA’s best record by accident. They responded by making four consecutive shots. After Boston pulled within 97-95, the Warriors needed just 57 seconds to unspool an 8-0 run that was capped by a Curry 3-pointer that stretched the lead back to 105-95 with 4:24 left.
The Celtics crawled back within 107-104 on a Brown layup with 50.9 seconds left. But at the other end Curry calmly drained a 15-foot floater to stretch the lead back to 5, and after a timeout Brown lost the ball off his leg and out of bounds.
The Warriors were in control, with possession, a 5-point lead, and just 11 seconds to get rid of, before Curry committed an offensive foul and fouled out on the play. After Tatum missed a 3-pointer, Smart gathered the offensive rebound and hit a 3, making it 109-107 with 3.9 seconds remaining. But Damion Lee hit a pair of free throws to finish off the win.