SAN FRANCISCO — The Celtics have insisted throughout their surge toward the top of the NBA that they never expect things to be easy. And with Stephen Curry raining 3-pointers and a rowdy crowd providing a jolt to the one group that has been in the NBA Finals before, it became clear that the Celtics would have to scratch and claw and find a way once again.
But trailing by 12 points at the start of the fourth quarter, the Celtics put on a 3-point-shooting display for the ages, connecting on seven in a row to daze and wobble the Warriors, igniting a 120-108 comeback win in Game 1 that left this crowd and this veteran Golden State team stunned.
In the fourth quarter the Celtics connected on 9 of 12 3-pointers and outscored the Warriors, 40-16, to hand the Warriors their first home loss of the playoffs.
“That’s kind of who we’ve been all year,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Tough grinders, resilient group, that we can always know we can rely on our defense to kind of buckle down when needed.”
The Celtics won despite a 3-for-17 shooting night from superstar forward Jayson Tatum, getting powerful performances from just about everyone else. Al Horford had 26 points, Jaylen Brown scored 24, and Derrick White added 21. Tatum did chip in with 13 assists. Stephen Curry had 34 points for Golden State. But 21 came during a majestic opening quarter. He was just 5 for 16 after that.
Observations from the game:
▪ At the start of the fourth the Celtics appeared to be one more Warriors run away from being flattened. But with Curry on the bench, Brown ignited the Celtics. He hit an off-balance jumper, drilled a 3-pointer, fed Robert Williams for another dunk, and then hit another three and a driving layup that pulled Boston within 97-94. It was All-Star-level stuff, and it came at the perfect time, particularly with Tatum scuffling.
“I just think that that was the start for us of something there,” Horford said. “It gave us that boost, that confidence.”
▪ The 3-point run was an absolute barrage. Over a stretch of a little more than three minutes, the Celtics connected on six in a row to roar to a 109-103 lead. And they were not really made by the usual suspects. Brown, Horford, and White had two apiece.
“They just pounced,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They took advantage of every opportunity.”
White’s surge felt most significant. At the start of the game the Warriors’ defenders were practically daring him to shoot. He missed a pair but then connected on two and finished the game 5 for 8 from beyond the arc.
▪ On Wednesday, Curry said that he had nerves during his first Finals appearance in 2015, but that they washed away once Game 1 got rolling. It looked like Tatum could relate. The Celtics star started the game by missing a jumper before air-balling a 3-pointer by a foot. A few minutes later he missed a pair of free throws.
His shooting struggles continued throughout the night, and occasional box-and-one defenses certainly made it tougher. But he missed several looks without a defender anywhere near him. It appeared mental more than anything. But Tatum didn’t let that turn his night into a disaster. Instead, he found seams and opportunities as a passer and registered those 13 assists. And the good news for the Celtics is that he’s mostly bounced back from bad shooting nights pretty well this season.
“Bad shooting night,” Tatum said. “I just tried to impact the game in other ways. We’re in the Finals and all I was worried about was trying to get a win … I don’t expect to shoot that bad again, but if it means we keep winning, I’ll take it.”
▪ The Warriors had been undefeated at home during the playoffs, but the Celtics are now 8-2 on the road. Home-court advantage has meant nothing to them. “The road,” White said, “is the time where it’s just us.”
▪ Movement and some timely screens helped free up Curry, but the Celtics still did an awful job of accounting for the Warriors superstar during the opening quarter. It was almost as if they’d forgotten he’s the greatest shooter of all time.
On one, Payton Pritchard somehow left Curry alone at the right arc, and he was already on fire at that point. It was an easy one. Curry finished the first quarter with an NBA Finals-record six 3-pointers and scored 21 points. The Celtics actually had to be pleased to be down just, 32-28, given that eruption. It could have been much worse.
▪ If Boston’s defense was a bit rattled at the start, it certainly settled in during the second quarter. White and Marcus Smart keyed the lockdown effort at the point of attack, getting into Golden State’s shooters before they had any room to think about spraying 3-pointers. The Warriors connected on 7 of 13 3-pointers in the first quarter but just 2 of 8 in the second, and Curry was held scoreless in a little more than six minutes.
▪ The Warriors don’t have a physically imposing lineup, but they’re scrappy, and 6-foot-9-inch Kevon Looney is an elite rebounder. the Celtics used double-big lineups for much of the night, but the Warriors had 23 second-chance points through the first three quarters anyway. Udoka made the right call by going to more of a small-ball set in the fourth, allowing it to spread the floor and capitalize elsewhere. Also, the Warriors mustered just one fourth-quarter offensive rebound. Of course, scorching 3-point shooting makes everything look better.