The Celtics understand they have not handled prosperity particularly well during these playoffs. But at the same time, they are still standing, so it’s hard to fault them too much.
On Friday night, on the heels of another dominant performance, they had a chance to put the Warriors in a stranglehold in these NBA Finals. A raucous TD Garden crowd was waiting for it and the Celtics were hoping for it, but Golden State would not stand for it.
With 34-year-old Stephen Curry once again asserting himself as the best player in this series, Golden State closed the game with a 17-3 run and secured a 107-97 win that made it 2-2.
Curry finished with 43 points and 10 rebounds, and he will bring his team home to San Francisco for Game 5 on Monday night with renewed confidence. The Celtics, meanwhile, will be forced to regroup and win on the road once again.
“We don’t do this (expletive) on purpose,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “I promise you, we don’t.”
The Celtics are 8-3 away from TD Garden in these playoffs, and they have yet to lose two games in a row. Both of those trends will now be tested. Although the Celtics are not shaken by the challenge, they understand they missed a chance to make their lives easier.
“It is what it is,” coach Ime Udoka said. “We’re 2-2 now. We know we can do it. We’ve done it before.”
After Curry injured his foot in the final minutes of his team’s Game 3 loss Wednesday, the tone was ominous. He said the injury was similar to the one that caused him to miss the final month of the regular season, but not as bad. He vowed to play Friday, but there were questions about whether he might be limited.
Then the game began, and there were no signs that he was ever injured. Instead, he often looked like the freshest, baddest, and most unstoppable player on the court.
After burying a first-quarter 3-pointer to stake his team to an early lead, he marched toward the Boston crowd and barked a few words, an unusual show of emotion from him, especially that early in a game. But there was a purpose behind it.
“That fire was me just trying to show that we are here tonight,” he said, “and we understand what the task at hand is.”
As the game progressed, Curry’s confidence swelled. The Celtics thought they were doing a good enough job of shadowing him, but he can find space when there are openings no bigger than a mail slot. Curry made 14 of 26 shots and 7 of 14 3-pointers. He looked at ease.
“We obviously have to do a better job of limiting that,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “We’ve got to make it even more tough for him.”
This series was viewed as a chance for Tatum, a first-team All-NBA pick, to take the next step in his ascension against a fellow superstar who is 10 years his elder.
And while there is certainly still time for him to lead this team to a championship, it’s impossible to ignore that this postseason has not been his best work. He now has seven games with at least six turnovers, and in these Finals he is shooting 33.4 percent from the field.
After Friday’s loss, the other Celtics mixed in words of encouragement with requests for more.
“Him being the player he is, these are the moments where he has to come alive and figure it out,” Smart said. “He will. We don’t know when it is, but we’re sure it’s going to happen soon, we’re ready for it, and we’re here to back him up.”
Udoka said that Tatum is sometimes trying to do too much as he seeks to get to the rim to finish a shot or find a teammate. He is sometimes passing up open mid-range jumpers, and those have value, too.
“I’ve just got to be better,” Tatum said. “I know I can be better, so it’s not like myself or my team is asking me to do something I’m not capable of.”
The third quarter was not a disaster for the Celtics, as most others have been, but it wasn’t great, either. They were outscored, 30-24, and Golden State flipped a five-point halftime deficit into a one-point lead.
But the end of the fourth quarter, a stretch Boston has mostly dominated in these playoffs, was more grisly.
The Celtics pushed ahead, 94-90, on a Smart 3-pointer with 5:18 left before hitting a fateful cold stretch in which they missed six jumpers in a row, including five 3-pointers.
“I think we just kind of got a little stagnant,” guard Derrick White said. “Everybody just kind of standing around looking at whoever had the ball, no player movement, no ball movement.”
Golden State’s ensuing 10-0 run was somewhat gradual by its splash-heavy standards. It took nearly four minutes to transpire, but that didn’t change its effectiveness.
Horford snapped Boston’s drought with a 3-pointer at the 1:32 mark that made it 100-97. Then Draymond Green gobbled up an offensive rebound and fed Kevon Looney for a layup, two of 19 second-chance points for the Warriors, who out-rebounded Boston, 55-42.
At the other end, Jaylen Brown kicked the ball away, and Boston did not score again. As Curry finished off the game with free throws there were scattered “MVP” chants, a rarity for an opposing player in Boston. But on this night, it was hard to quibble with the sentiment.