The Celtics’ magical 2022 playoff run crash-landed on Causeway Street Thursday as the still-worthy Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship with a 103-90 Game 6 victory at the TD Garden.
Years from now, perhaps we’ll look back and see this as a building block for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Co., but right now, it feels like one of the worst blown opportunities in 21st century Boston sports.
“It hurts that we fell short, but the future is bright,’’ said Celtics rookie coach Ime Udoka. " . . . This is just a start. The foundation’s been set. We can hit the ground running next year.’’
“As you can see, there’s still a lot of growing for all of us,’’ said resident Celtic grown-up Al Horford (19 points, 14 rebounds). “The Warriors are on a different level. It’s something we have to accept and grow from it.’’
The Celtics seemingly had control of the series. They won two of the first three, and at times looked dominant. They were the younger, stronger, better team (we foolishly thought) and New England sports fans looked forward to seeing franchise flag No. 18 raised to the Garden rafters.
The Warriors had other ideas. Time-tested champs Steph Curry (series MVP), Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and (coach) Steve Kerr showed the immature, front-running Celtics how it’s done. They beat the Celtics three straight times, twice at the Garden, each time exposing Boston’s turnover-prone offense and weak bench.
This was supposed to be Tatum’s introduction to NBA America as a legitimate superstar. Instead, it was a nightmare for Boston’s soft-spoken All-Star. The record will show that 24 year-old Tatum totally turtled in his first shot at a championship. He was a turnover machine who scored a bunch of hollow points, but did little in the crucial moments of every loss. In the finale, Tatum scored 13 points (2 after halftime) hitting on only 6 of 18 shots (1 of 4 on 3-pointers) and committing five turnovers. Tatum set an NBA postseason record for turnovers.
“He’s got to learn and understand who he is in this league,’’ said Udoka. “This was a rough one.’’
Tatum’s simply not ready. These Celtics were not ready. They are well positioned for the future, but they will not go into the summer with fond memories of their first opportunity in the NBA Finals.
Historically, Celtic teams are at their best in the Finals. With help from Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Larry Bird, Boston basketball teams won 17 championships in 21 trips to the Finals.
But this one was a disaster. No Celtic team had lost a Finals after taking a 2-1 series lead. No Boston team had lost three straight games in the Finals.
These guys did both. After not losing two straight games since March 28-30, they lost three straight in the Finals.
Games 4 and 5 were disappointing. The Celts collapsed down the stretch in both.
Game 6 was worse as the Green were outscored by an embarrassing 21-0 in a horrible stretch of the first half.
The Celtics were crisp and dominant in the early minutes, racing to a 14-2 lead and forcing a timeout by Kerr. The quick start emboldened a Garden crowd, which was decidedly nervous at the opening tap.
Celtic sins of Games 4 and 5 no doubt were still on everybody’s mind and those fears proved legit. The Warriors roared back from the early 10-point deficit, outscoring the Celtics, 25-8, for the rest of the quarter, closing with an 11-0 run to take a 27-22 lead after one quarter. It was very quiet in the Garden after Green, Curry (34 points) and Jordan Poole finished the quarter with back-to-back-to-back threes. It was an impressive display by the visitors.
That was only the beginning of the Golden State tsunami. At the start of the second, Poole drained another three and Andrew Wiggins scored in transition to make it 16 straight points and a 32-22 Golden State lead. Udoka called time just 50 seconds into the quarter. Ouch.
After the pause, Poole hit another three and Wiggins scored in transition to make it a 21-0 run and a 37-33 lead. Udoka called another timeout. In that moment, former Celtic champion Kendrick Perkins tweeted, “Celtics are COOKED.’’
The 21-0 stretch was the longest scoring run in an NBA Finals in 50 years.
Have any of us ever seen a coach call two timeouts in less than two minutes at the start of a second quarter of an NBA Finals game?
The Warriors’ first-half lead peaked at 21, capping a stretch in which the Warriors outscored the Celtics, 51-19. Boston committed 12 turnovers in the first two quarters and were booed off the floor before intermission.
“Look at the numbers,’’ said Udoka. “We gave up 20-plus points on turnovers and 20-plus points on second-chance points. That doesn’t really give us a chance.’’
Estimable Horford started making threes in the third, but Tatum was still in his funk and Curry again showed us that he is the greatest shooter in the history of this game. Curry’s third three of the third quarter made it 72-50.
Led by Brown (34 points), the Celtics put a charge into the crowd with a nice run late in the third and cut the margin to 76-66 at the end of three. Tatum did not score a point in the quarter.
Boston managed to cut it to 8 in the fourth, but Curry was simply too much and the Celtics, particularly Tatum, kept turning over the ball. Boston finished with a whopping 22 turnovers, an inadvertent homage to Mike’s Pastry.
The Warriors were clearly motivated to win it in Boston. Hub fans had a lot of fun delivering x-rated chants in the direction of Draymond in the Game 3 win and Messrs. Thompson and Kerr were openly mocked when they accused Celtic fans of showing no class.
Instead of talking, the Warriors responded like true champions, cutting out the hearts of the Celtics and their fans in the next three games.
“This might be the most unlikely one of all,’’ said Kerr.
Golden State’s Game 6 win represented only the second time a visiting team won an NBA championship on the Garden’s parquet floor.
The 1985 Lakers were the first to do it. They had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, two of the best players who ever lived.
Now the Warriors have done it. They played like the old Celtics used to play — when Russell and Friends won a championship in the Los Angeles Forum in 1969, and when Dave Cowens and Havlicek won a Finals Game 7 in Milwaukee in 1974.
These Warriors, like those Celtics, played like true champions. And they showed us that the 2022 Celtics were not yet ready.