If Game 2 of the NBA Finals will be remembered for the way Draymond Green got under the Celtics’ skin and climbed onto their last nerve, then Game 3 should be remembered for the way Celtics returned the favor.
With a huge assist from the home crowd.
With the intensity and fire that has fueled a postseason run without back-to-back losses, the Celtics did it again Wednesday night at TD Garden, rebounding from a disappointing Game 2 loss to beat the Warriors, 116-100 in Game 3, taking a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals.
That puts them two wins from an NBA title, one step closer to what would be a record 18th for the storied franchise.
“Another bounce back from us,” coach Ime Udoka said, “and my message to the group was we’ve done this after losses, let’s respond the right way after a win now.”
The Celtics could not have done a better job responding to the way Green had tormented them Sunday night, with no one and nothing telling the story of their winning night better than him. The Warriors’ resident pest-in-chief was unable to dent the Celtics’ composure the way he’d done a game ago, and after a 2-point, 3-assist 4-rebound mess of a night, it was the final number — six fouls — that put him on the bench with more than four minutes to go, nowhere to go and nothing to do but watch as the Celtics pulled away.
Not that it was easy. And at times, it sure wasn’t pretty, especially with another awful third quarter. But it was ultimately successful because of what was fixed from Sunday night’s meltdown. A torrid start from Jaylen Brown (27 points and 9 rebounds in 40 minutes), a hard-fought night from Jayson Tatum (26 points, 9 assists in 41 minutes), contributions from the rest of the roster (24 points from Marcus Smart, 11 from Al Horford, 10 rebounds from Robert Williams), and perhaps, best of all, a cleaner game without the turnovers that sunk them Sunday.
Oh, and the non-stop chorus of love from the sold-out, green-clad crowd that made sure to annoy Green at the same time.
Two wins to an NBA title.
“Just poise,” Smart said. “Game 2 they brought the heat to us, for us that left a bad taste in our mouths because what we hang our hat on is the defensive end and playing physical. It definitely woke us up a little bit.”
The Celtics still couldn’t find a way to rewrite their third-quarter script, this time outscored by 8 points, 33-25, a Warriors run that included a basketball touchdown — a 7-point possession earned when Horford was flagged for a flagrant 1 foul on a Stephen Curry 3-pointer — that did plenty to tilt the score. The crazy sequence brought the Warriors within a bucket, and showed just how much the Dubs were chopping into a Celtics lead that had reached a high of 18 points late in the second quarter.
But unlike last time out in San Francisco, the Celtics did not sink so far that they couldn’t recover. They fell behind by a point on a Curry 3-pointer, but they hung on, and by the time this third quarter was over, clung to a 4-point advantage like a life raft, knowing it could have been worse.
“They hit some big shots there,” Udoka said. “But we talked about it quite a bit, our group being resilient and being able to fight through a lot of things and at times when it’s most needed being able to lock down on defense, which we did in the fourth quarter.”
They also did it in the first quarter. Boston marched onto the floor at 8:43 p.m., ready for business as the growing waves of cheers erupted from fans in the rapidly-filling TD Garden seats. Out came the Warriors, the black-clad bad guys in their dark warm-ups and gold lettering looking immediately like the villains the accompanying chorus of boos made them out to be. But as the home crowd continued to holler, it was shouts of “Let’s Go Celtics” that rained early and often from the rafters, continuing to echo and bounce off the shimmering parquet below.
And down on the court, the Celtics rewarded the faithful by tipping off with urgency. Credit to Brown, who was on the wrong end of Green’s fouls and antics Sunday night, but was at the front end of the Celtics’ early assault Wednesday.
With 17 first-quarter points, including 10 of his team’s first 18 overall, Brown nearly outscored the Warriors on his own, with Boston taking a 33-22 lead by the first break. According to Elias Sports, Brown’s 17 points tied for the Celtics’ most in any quarter of an NBA Finals game over the last 50 years, matching the feat of Ray Allen in the second quarter of a 2010 game against the Lakers.
It was the sort of opening Smart had in mind when he looked forward to the team’s Garden return and their path to erasing the sting of missed opportunity in Game 2. As good as it felt to return home with a road split, the blowout in Game 2, the missed chance to shock the world with two wins on the road, the defensive lapses and mind-numbing turnovers, all of it weighed on the Celtics’ minds as they headed into Game 3.
“I mean, you respond to fire with fire, right?,” he said. “This is our house and we’ve got to protect it.”
That they did. Two more wins and they get to hang a banner all their own.
“That’s definitely fuel to the fire for us,” Smart said. “It gives us goosebumps to be able to say that. It took this organization 12 years to get back here to the Finals. We look up and see those banners, and it gives us motivation to try to be the next person up.”
Read more Celtics stories