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Tara Sullivan

How one terrible fourth quarter for the Celtics in November helped them rally to win Game 1 against the Warriors

Marcus Smart (right) called out Jayson Tatum after a game in November, and it helped bring the Celtics together, not tear them apart.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The story of the Celtics’ improbable Game 1 win over the Warriors will forever be told through an epic fourth-quarter comeback, a stunning stretch of basketball when shots fell like soft rain, defense descended like heavy clouds, and confidence coursed through an entire roster.

Yet to understand how the Celtics got here, to this place of beautiful basketball filled with skill, sacrifice, and success, not to mention a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals, it is a different, much uglier fourth quarter that helps tell their story. Back to an epic 15-minute meltdown in November, to a bewildering stretch when shots were contested, defense was nonexistent, and selfishness reigned to such an alarming degree that one veteran leader was moved to publicly call out his younger, star teammates.

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At the time, it felt like Marcus Smart’s seething words might tear the team apart. Instead, the Celtics took his words and their mistakes to heart, and went about proving how much they could learn, change, evolve, and grow.

Placed side by side, the fourth quarters from a Nov. 1, 2021, loss to the Bulls and the June 2, 2022, win over the Warriors offer an amazing comparison of how far this team has come.

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It was a Monday night game against the Bulls, with the season in its infant stages under first-year coach Ime Udoka, when the Celtics imploded. Playing at home, they were outscored, 39-11, in the fourth quarter, blowing their 19-point lead (14 at the start of the fourth) and losing, 128-114. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the first time in the shot-clock era (since 1954-55) that a team lost by 14-plus points after leading by 14-plus entering the fourth. The third straight loss dropped the Celtics to 2-5, and a seething postgame Smart called out Jayson Tatum (who shot 1 for 8 in the fourth) and Jaylen Brown (the Celtics had zero defensive rebounds in that final quarter) for selfish play.

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The heat on Smart was searing, and not just for his own zero-assist role in the loss, but for pointed, harsh words at the team’s star duo. He said this after being asked how he could help right the ship offensively. “There’s only so much I can do without the ball in my hands,” he said. “I’m just standing in the corner.”

The complaint was matched by the challenge he issued to his high-powered teammates. “Every team knows we are trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen, and every team is programmed and studies to stop Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart said “I think everybody’s scouting report is [to] make those guys try to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball and that’s something that they’re going to learn.”

For a certain high school coach in Texas, the blunt assessment rang a familiar bell, but sounded not the seeds of discontent, but ones of much-needed leadership, born not of anger, but of care and concern.

“Marcus thinks like a coach. I’ll be shocked if he’s not a college or NBA coach someday,” Danny Henderson said in a call from Texas, where he coached Smart and his Marcus High School of Flower Mound to two state championships. “There was probably that element of him thinking of it strategically. I’ve been around a lot of players, but I’ve never been around someone like him, he’s the most competitive human being I’ve been around. Losing eats him alive. So though I’m sure there was a strategic element, he also just hated losing and losing like that.

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“But trust me, coming from a guy who has coached 30 years at a lot of different levels, I’ve seen guys try to be leaders and try to call people out, and most times it just does not work. They just don’t demand the same things from themselves. He does. He demands the same and more. He’s a guy who has no ego about points and rebounds, in a league of gigantic egos. You can’t put a price on a guy like that and there is no analytic to measure it.

“Everything about Marcus Smart is contagious.”

The rest of the Celtics caught his message. Fast forward to Thursday in San Francisco to see how well. This time, the Celtics outscored the Warriors, 40-16, in the fourth quarter, erasing a 12-point deficit as it started on the way to a 120-108 win. Their 24-point fourth-quarter differential tied the record for any quarter of an NBA Finals game. They out-toughed, outplayed, and outhustled the three-time champion Warriors on their home court, improving to 8-2 on the road this postseason, handing Golden State its first home loss and first Game 1 loss of the playoffs.

All of it left us with a beaming Smart, so impressed by teammates who did everything right across that final stanza, so proud that his harsh words hadn’t divided the team but instead made it closer. He gushed, “When I told those guys I love them, I meant it … That was me being who I am, and that was true. We have a special bond outside of basketball, and you know, to be able to go to war with those guys makes that bond even stronger.”

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The box score tells the story. While Tatum struggled to one of his worst offensive nights of the playoffs (shooting 3 for 17 for 12 points), he had 13 assists, the most by a player in his NBA Finals debut. Brown was the catalyst to the comeback, scoring the team’s first 5 points in the fourth quarter, then throwing an alley-oop pass for Robert Williams’s dunk, getting a steal and assist to Payton Pritchard’s bucket, and scoring 5 more points on a 3-pointer and a drive. As Brown soared, the Celtics cut the deficit to one possession, and were on their way to another J&J-powered victory.

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Smart all but predicted such growth back on that November night, saying of Brown and Tatum, “We’re proud of the progress they are making, but they are going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team, to open up the court for them later down in the game where they don’t always have to take those tough shots or take tough matchups when they do get the one-on-one and then you bring a trap.

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“It’s something that we’ve been asking for them to do and they’re learning. We’ve just got to continue to help those guys do that and to help our team.”

Smart talked, they listened. His best assist of the season.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.