With a few irrelevant seconds remaining on the clock and all matters in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at TD Garden Friday night settled convincingly in the visitors’ favor, Jayson Tatum slammed the ball near the leprechaun logo and slowly began to make his way toward the sideline, then exited down the tunnel.
It was a concession, but it was not only that. It also happened to be one of the Celtics’ least aggravating decisions with the basketball late in their 107-97 loss to the Warriors, which evened this series at two games apiece and proved once again that the Celtics treat prosperity like an ill-fitting Christmas gift, something to be returned almost as soon as it is received.
Slam the ball? A power-dribble of frustration for the final scene? Sure, why not? It beat watching one more forced shot or reckless turnover for the road.
The Celtics could have had this. Should have, too. They could have gone up, 3-1, in the series, leaving them with three shots to close out the proud, recent three-time champion Warriors and claim their first NBA championship since 2008.
Despite another transcendent performance from Stephen Curry (43 points, 10 rebounds), the Celtics led by 5 at halftime, trailed by just 1 at the end of their chronic nemesis, the third quarter, and led, 94-90, when Marcus Smart heaved in a 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 18 seconds left.
Victory was within reach. So what did they do? Well, what they did looked an awful lot like a full-roster reenactment of Ricky Davis’s Celtics career. They made one more field goal the rest of the night, an Al Horford 3-pointer with 1:32 left to cut the Warriors’ lead to 100-97. The Warriors scored the final 7 points, closing the game on a 21-6 run over the final 6:29.
By my accounting, one Celtic played what one would call “well” Friday night, and it was the Celtic who had the most legitimate reasons not to play well. Robert Williams followed up his inspiring Game 3 performance (8 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks) with another gem Friday (7 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks). He’s doing this on a surgically repaired left knee that at times this postseason has robbed the mobility from a player who at his slam-dunking, shot-blocking best looks like he’s launched himself from a trampoline.
He looked good. I challenge you to find another teammate of which the same could be said. Jaylen Brown scored 21 points and had a couple of nice stretches, but the ball too often stalled when it was in his hands. I thought this might be the game where Tatum drops 40 and goes shot-for-shot with Curry, but he hit just 4 of 15 from 2-point range and turned the ball over six times. Smart hit 7 of 18 attempts — about eight too many — and finished minus-17. Derrick White made 1 of 7 2-point attempts and had three turnovers. Horford made just 2 of 6 shots, all from 3-point territory. Grant Williams had 3 points and four fouls. What a roll call of misery.
After a stirring 116-100 win in Game 3 Wednesday night that left Boston fans with visions of duck boats rolling in their heads, the Celtics had a chance to take a commanding lead in the series in Game 4. Instead, they struggled individually and as a unit, and they were in command of nothing when the game was right there for the taking.
And you know what? We should have seen it coming. Maybe you did. The Celtics have overcome and even repaired some of their major flaws in a season that began with 18 wins in their first 39 games and currently has them two wins from a championship. But this is still what they do — they make things difficult on themselves. They take the detour from the easiest road every time.
They lose Game 5 at home to the Bucks in the second round to fall behind, 3-2. They lose Game 6 at home to the Heat, ensuring that the Eastern Conference finals would be decided on Miami’s court. They win Game 1 of the Finals in San Francisco, but crumble in Game 2 when there’s a golden opportunity to take two straight on the road. And now this. A chance to go up, 3-1, has turned into a best of three, with two of the games on the Warriors’ territory.
It cannot be dismissed that these Celtics have been incredibly resilient. At times, it’s part of their charm, one of the reasons Celtics fans have fallen so hard for this team even if they don’t, and shouldn’t, completely trust it yet. They did beat Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in Milwaukee in Game 6 and dethroned the champs in Game 7 in Boston. They did take Game 7 from the Heat in Miami.
But this is different. This is the sixth trip to the Finals for Curry, Klay Thompson, and the carcass of Draymond Green. They’ve seen it all. They’ve seized opportunities, and they’ve let them slip. Curry knows how to break hearts, wills, and championship dreams. Messing with the Warriors is a dangerous game.
The Celtics could have had the Warriors on the ropes. Instead, they’re back in the fight. I suppose if the Celtics are going to do this, if this is the year Banner 18 becomes a reality, they’re going to do it their way — with the highest degree of difficulty possible. Perhaps it will ultimately prove exhilarating. But in Game 4, the Celtics were exasperating, in all their worst ways. This is far from over. It’s just going to be a whole lot harder than it could have been.