This one took your breath away.
The Celtics trailed the estimable Warriors by 15 points late in the third quarter, only to roar back in the fourth on the strength of their NBA-best defense and the shooting of veterans Al Horford (26 points) and Derrick White (21 off the bench).
When it was over, the Celtics were 120-108 winners in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at San Francisco Thursday night and dreams of a championship feel very real.
“It wasn’t our best game, but we continue to fight and find ways to win,’’ said humble Horford, a 15-year veteran who had not played in a Finals game and turned 36 Friday.
Most everything was stacked against the Celts. The Warriors were 9-0 at home in these playoffs, and had a full week of rest while the Celtics were staggering through their seven-game rock fight with Miami. The Warriors have been in the Finals in six of the last eight Junes, winning three championships. Steph Curry lit up the night with 21 first-quarter points.
All of that meant nothing when the Celtics went into lockdown defense mode and rode the shooting of Horford and White to 40-16 fourth-quarter advantage.
Instant history. No team in NBA Finals lore ever beat another team by 24 points in the fourth quarter. And the Celtics did this to the worthy Warriors . . . on the road.
In the spirit of dominant defenders Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Tom Sanders and Dennis Johnson, the Celtics pulled off one of the greatest Finals victories in the long history of the storied franchise.
“We hadn’t played our best in the first half,’’ said Boston’s rookie coach Ime Udoka. “We knew we were in good shape. We relied on the defense and the offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. That’s who we’ve been all year. Tough. Grinders. We always know we can rely on our defense . . . We locked down when we needed to.’’
“They [Celtics] were on their [Warriors] ass like diapers on a baby,’’ former Celtic champion Kendrick Perkins said on NBC SportsBoston’s postgame show.
It was the first Finals game played at the three-year old Chase Center. In the early years of this Warrior Dynasty, the Dubs played all their home games at the ancient, gray, concrete palace formerly known as the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It was a gym Larry Bird never particularly liked and also served as the rookie home of young Robert Parish in 1976. If you want a good look at the old Coliseum, find a way to watch “Inside Moves’' with David Morse and John Savage. Parish and his good pal Clifford Ray make cameos in the 1980 film.
Draymond Green and the Splash Brothers did not make the playoffs in 2020 or 2021, but returned with a vengeance this season and wiped out Denver, Memphis and Dallas en route to the Finals, going undefeated in their downtown San Fran playpen. It was, perhaps, too easy of a path.
The Warriors came into the night with five players owning Finals experience, a grand total of 123 games played by Messrs. Curry, Green, Klay Thompson and Co. The 2021-22 Celtics do not have a single player who’d ever played a game in the Finals before Thursday.
Journey’s Neal Schon performed the anthem on his guitar. Too bad he wasn’t accompanied by Journey drummer Steve Smith who went to Whitman-Hanson High School (where the late Nick Cafardo played sax in the school band) and Bridgewater State College.
Robert Williams III jumped center against Kevon Looney. The last time the Celtics and Warriors met in the NBA Finals, it was Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain in the middle.
Curry drained six threes in the first, which ended with the Dubs leading, 32-28. The pace was far too fast for Udoka’s liking as the Warriors led by as many as 7, but somehow the Celtics kept pace and kept it close. Curry made 7 of 9, far too many of them clean looks from downtown. He was the first player to score 21 in a Finals quarter since Michael Jordan did it in 1993. Curry was on an 84-point pace. It was delightful, scintillating basketball — no officials getting in the way early.
The Warriors ran to a 10-point lead in the second, but the Celtics responded with a 14-2 run, and led by 2 at the half. The teams combined to make 20 threes in the first half, a Finals record.
The Dubs dialed up their defense in the third, continuing to frustrate Jayson Tatum (3-for-17 shooting, 12 points) and getting big baskets from the likes of Otto Porter, Andrew Wiggins, and ancient Andre Iguodala.
Down 12 starting the fourth, the Celtics cut the hearts out of the champions with a 40-point quarter . . . with Tatum doing nothing. Horford made all four of his shots in the fourth, scoring 11. Brown shot 4 of 6 and scored 10. Curry was a feeble 2 for 6 in the fourth as the game got away.
Boston never goes away easily and folks in San Francisco have to be nervous after this one.
“Well be fine,’’ said veteran champion Green. “We pretty much dominated the game for the first 41, 42 minutes, so we’ll be fine . . . ‘’
Just give us three, four, five or six more games just like this, please.