The Celtics walked away disappointed, not encouraged, by their 115-111 loss to the two-time defending world champion Golden State Warriors, and they should have been disappointed because they are beyond moral victories.
They have roughly four months to figure out how to beat the Warriors should they advance as far as the NBA Finals, and they left a plethora of plays on the TD Garden floor Saturday.
Yes, if Marcus Morris had made an open 3-pointer with 10.8 seconds left, the Celtics would feel a whole lot better about themselves. But he missed and then the Celtics missed a chance at a defensive rebound in the final seconds that would have given them the ball down 2 points.
Rebuilding teams cherish moral victories. Established teams on the verge of elite don’t, and if the Celtics consider themselves the latter, then there should be no celebration, only lamenting missed opportunities or botched defensive assignments or lack of discipline.
How many times were Golden State’s brilliant shooters left open for 3-pointers because the Celtics were a split-second late covering after a change of possession? That split second won’t make a difference against Minnesota, Detroit or Cleveland, but against Golden State, it will cost the game.
With the score tied at 108, Kyrie Irving lost possession of the ball and the scramble was on. Andre Iguodala found a wandering Klay Thompson, who quickly swished a three with 2:12 left for the lead. The Celtics still had their chances but Marcus Smart and Morris each missed open threes from the left wing.
But the game wasn’t lost late. The Celtics made mistakes throughout the evening. They lost all-time great 3-point shooters on defense. They didn’t attack the basket and finally, they fouled too often.
The Warriors made five baskets and 14 free throws in the fourth quarter. Kevin Durant, Thompson and Stephen Curry were a combined 3-for-9 shooting in the final period. But the Warriors outshot the Celtics, 16-2, from the free throw line.
Yes, for all the hard work they put in offensively, the Celtics shot two free throws in the final period. It’s nearly impossible to beat any team with that disparity, let alone the Warriors.
“The whole game I thought they just really capitalized when there was that opportunity to do so,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Credit them for that. Those guys come down the court and you make the smallest of error, they’re going to take advantage of you.”
Irving was magnificent down the stretch with 13 points in the fourth quarter but he took 40 percent of the Celtics’ shots in the final period. Jayson Tatum took one shot. Morris took two.
The one thing the Celtics can learn from the Warriors is their ability and desire to spread the wealth, using the extra pass to find the open shooter. Of the 17 Golden State shot attempts in the final period, Durant, Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins each had four. Curry took one shot.
“Going against [the] best you don’t have a lot of room to make mistakes, so we need to clean some of that stuff up,” Irving said. “We played pretty well. We had chances at the end. It’s a great time out there going against the best of the best. It’s fun. You don’t get it too often every single night going against that many great players on one team.”
Irving was a member of that 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers team that overcame a three games to one deficit to beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals. But two points here: that team had LeBron James and the Warriors didn’t have Durant. The Warriors haven’t lost a playoff series with Durant.
But the consensus is that they are still beatable. At least the rest of the league has to think that way to avoid losing hope. The Celtics proved they were capable of beating Golden State once but they are going to have to evolve in the next few months to do so again.
First, the Celtics are going to need more from their bench. The reserves shot 5 of 19 for 16 points, 10 of those by Jaylen Brown (all in the first half). Gordon Hayward went 0 for 5 with 2 points. Now while Hayward contributed seven rebounds and a pair of steals, the Celtics are going to need a much better performance from him in three months to compete.
The Celtics can’t compete or even play with the Warriors with a hesitant bench. The Golden State bench isn’t superb because it doesn’t need to be, but the Warriors’ reserves are capable and are able to expand leads against their counterparts.
The Warriors reserves were a combined plus-33 Saturday. The Celtics reserves were a combined minus-33. That means the Celtics’ starters were 13 points better than their counterparts.
The Celtics will need to clean up defensive mistakes in transition. They need to stop fouling as a means of defending. They need to attack the rim.
“You just gotta match them blow for blow,” Irving said. “A lot of greatness on that team, so you’ve got to match greatness with greatness. That’s what you want, on the biggest stage, going against them.
“They got poise, but they also got pretty lucky, too. We had two pretty good looks. A lot of positives but a few bad bounces their way. But I can’t wait to play them again. It’s always fun going against the best.”