It was the best game of the series, one of the best games of the playoffs.
But in the end, it was the worst kind of loss for the Celtics, who let a potential playoff win slip out of their hands, let coveted home-court advantage escape from their grip, and stunningly, let a possible 3-1 NBA Finals lead dissolve into a 2-2 NBA Finals tie.
Friday night’s 107-97 loss to the Warriors will be remembered for delivering yet another Steph Curry virtuoso performance, will go down as a powerful reminder of what it is to be facing an experienced, prideful championship team such as Golden State, will be talked about for posterity for the level of intensity, skill and passion delivered by both sides, and above all, by Curry.
But ultimately, it will be rued for what could have been, for the way Curry rose up across the fourth quarter and sunk the Celtics with his 43-point, 10-rebound, 4-assist night, for the way Boston’s early shot-making evaporated across the final minutes and was reduced, yet again, to the brand of isolation hero ball that makes Jayson Tatum look lost and leaves the Celtics searching for answers, for the way Boston wilted in the closing moments of a game that they led by 5 with 7:32 to go, by 4 with just over five minutes remaining.
“Got to give them credit, they played well, made tough shots, but we obviously felt like we put ourselves in position to win the game and there’s a lot of things we wish we would have done differently, especially on the offense end when we just got way too stagnant in the fourth,” Tatum said.
“But it’s a new series. Best of three. Get some sleep and get on this long ass flight tomorrow.”
For much of the night, it felt as if the Celtics were going to get on that plane and head west one win away from a title. But this team does nothing as well as make its own life difficult, a reality Tatum grudgingly acknowledged by saying, “We don’t do this [expletive] on purpose.”
But they do it all the same, and after doing it again Friday night, they can’t help but worry they may have too much damage to repair.
“That’s gone along with our season, especially this postseason, we’ve had to do it the difficult way,” coach Ime Udoka said. “We have been battle-tested throughout some series, Milwaukee, Miami. We have to do it again.
“It could have been an easier road, obviously, if you get the win tonight. But it is what it is. We’re 2-2 now. We know we can do it. We’ve done it before. Keep your head up and let’s go get one on the road.”
No choice after they let one get away at home.
This was a night when TD Garden literally shook under the weight of the home crowd’s hope, the stomping feet and full-throated voices of a desperate Celtics faithful turning a packed-house into something akin to a pounding speaker. But much as they tried to will the home team over the finish line, it was the Warriors who made the final turn with gusto, the Warriors who channeled their inner closer, the Warriors who proved they aren’t quite done yet.
The Celtics were up 5 with 7:32 to go. From there? Two misses from Tatum, two misses from Jaylen Brown, 2-for-10 shooting overall, two turnovers in the midst of the drought, four offensive rebounds by Golden State. All of it combining to deflate what had been a raucous, ebullient atmosphere inside the building.
“Yeah, you’d like to take the easier route,” Udoka said. “We had our chances, like I said. It’s not only solely dependent on one team. It’s a championship-caliber opponent that’s not going to lay down. They made some tough shots, but also guarded well at the end.
“As much as we’d like to do better on our own, you’ve got to give them credit for how they stepped up defensively. Miami is a team that we went and did it against. We’ve proven we can do it, being down two games, two elimination games to Milwaukee. That’s proof that we can do it.”
What they can’t seem to do is handle prosperity in the same fashion they overcome adversity, much as they promised to try after winning Game 3 Wednesday night and taking that 2-1 series lead. Now, as they head to San Francisco for Monday’s Game 5, they’ll need the same brand of magic that has kept them from losing back-to-back games this postseason.
“Now our backs are against the wall and this team we’ve shown all year with our backs against the wall we have to come out and respond,” Al Horford said. “Obviously it’s a big challenge ahead.”
They were so close to winning two at home, and for so much of the game, it felt like one of those perfect Boston sports nights that was going to end in victory, dripping with the type of intensity and passion that happen when the best teams wage battles and the stakes are the highest. The kind of night that would see a star like Tatum sprinting down the court chasing, in vain, a loose ball headed out of bounds. The kind of night that would have Warriors coach Steve Kerr drawing a technical for arguing with the refs or benching a struggling Draymond Green in the fourth quarter.
The kind of night befitting these championship stakes, a credit to the dueling identities of the pixie-dusted Celtics and the dynasty-dusted Warriors, to an upstart team from Boston looking to stake its own historic place in a franchise steeped in history and a modern model franchise looking to extend its impressive run of dominance.
Together, they put on a hell of a basketball show. It was a great night for the game, but a bad loss for the home team.