Jayson Tatum said he could tell things were different when he came out onto the TD Garden floor to warm up Wednesday evening and noticed that the arena was nearly full.
“You definitely notice a different energy,” he said.
Al Horford said he felt it, too.
Twelve years had passed since the Celtics last hosted an NBA Finals game. There had been plenty of nights in this building that mattered since then, but none in June. None quite like this.
Nevertheless, this intensity and spirit is only valuable if the home team does something with it. Otherwise, what should be a boost can shift into a burden.
The Celtics knew they were facing a Warriors team that had won the first road game in all three of its previous series and has won at least one road game in an unfathomable 26 in a row. They knew it would not be easy.
But they also knew they would have some say-so in how this night unfolded.
No team has defeated them twice in a row during this postseason, and despite everything Golden State forward Draymond Green said about them and did to them in recent days, they knew they were ready to fight fire with fire.
So they took the court and walloped the Warriors at the start, withstood the third-quarter rally that has become inevitable, and used another dominant fourth quarter to roll to a 116-100 Game 3 win that gave them a 2-1 series lead. This team that was in 11th place in the Eastern Conference in January is now two wins from an NBA title.
“Game 2, they brought the heat to us,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “For us, that left a bad taste in our mouth, because what we hang our hat on is effort on the defensive end and being a physical team. It definitely woke us up.”
As chants and expletives poured down on Green, who has suddenly become the biggest villain in this city since Kyrie Irving was swept out of the first round back in April, the Celtics put on their own show of force. They gobbled up 15 offensive rebounds, scored 22 second-chance points, and held a 52-26 edge in points in the paint. They reminded themselves what toughness looks like.
“They put a lot of pressure on us,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, “and it felt like we were kind of swimming upstream most of the night.”
Jaylen Brown had 27 points — 17 in the first quarter — and 9 rebounds, Tatum had 26 points and 9 assists, and Smart added 24 points and 7 rebounds. They Celtics needed all of that, but the play of Robert Williams, who has been battling left knee soreness throughout these playoffs, might have been most essential.
Williams finished with 8 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 steals, and the Celtics outscored the Warriors by 21 points during his 26 minutes on the court.
Brown said that when Williams is moving well, it turns Boston’s defense from good to great. But Williams is still dealing with pain related to his March 30 surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and he has rarely moved well since then. The Celtics see that, but they also see how much they need him.
Smart said he told Williams before the game that even if he was playing at just 20 percent, it’d be better than not having him on the floor at all.
“He understood that,” Smart said, “and he decided to go out there and put his big boy pants on and suck it up and go crazy.”
Stephen Curry had 31 points to lead Golden State, 15 of which came during his dazzling third quarter in which his team erased what was once an 18-point Boston lead. At one point during a 12-0 run, the Warriors scored seven points in just 13 seconds, as a flagrant foul on a Curry four-point play was followed by an Otto Porter Jr. 3-pointer.
But 33 seconds after Curry’s 3 with 3:45 left gave the Warriors an 83-82 lead, Smart answered with one, and Boston never trailed again. It was another reminder that these Celtics no longer resemble the Celtics from last fall.
For the Warriors, Curry’s health is the biggest concern after this loss. With just over four minutes left there was a scramble for a loose ball and Horford fell onto Curry’s left foot. Curry was slow getting up.
He stayed in for two more minutes before being removed along with the Warriors’ other top players. But Kerr was somewhat cryptic afterward. When asked why he took Curry out, he said it was because the game was over, but when pushed on whether he had no concern about a possible injury he replied, “I didn’t say that.”
Curry acknowledged that he was in pain but said that he does not think he will have to miss Game 4 because of the injury. If Curry is sidelined, of course, it would all but end Golden State’s chances in this series. But even if he is healthy, it is becoming increasingly apparent that even that might not be enough.
Green fouled out moments after Curry was injured and finished with 2 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. In Game 2, he was the conductor. In Game 3, he had no impact. Afterward, he was asked to assess his performance.
“Like [expletive],” Green said.
The Celtics have taken pride in wearing down opponents during these playoffs, and in the fourth quarter Wednesday, Golden State scored just 11 points, committed eight turnovers, made 1 of 9 3-pointers and did not grab an offensive rebound.
“We didn’t hold our head down or anything [when we fell behind],” Tatum said. “We called a timeout, regrouped, figured it out and made winning plays. I was definitely proud of the group for that.”