SAN FRANCISCO — It was exactly the opening statement you probably imagined for the 2022 NBA Finals, though not in the manner it was done and maybe not the team that did it, either.
Here are five takeaways from the 120-108 Game 1 win by the Boston Celtics, who instantly put the Golden State Warriors and the Finals on alert:
1. Experience is … overrated?
There’s only one guarantee about the remainder of this series: You won’t hear any more chatter about the Celtics being too, ahem, green in the Finals.
The Celtics arrived here with little rest, were on the road against a team previously unbeaten in this building in the playoffs, were down 12 to start the fourth quarter, staring at a percolating Stephen Curry, with Jayson Tatum unable to get buckets … and proceeded to punch the Warriors right in the mouth. They’re the first team to win a Finals game by double digits after trailing by double digits to start the fourth.
That’s not symbolic of a group that never guzzled championship champagne before. In this situation, in this particular game, against a Warriors team that’s on a first-name basis with June basketball, weren’t the Celtics supposed to crumble and cave and take their medicine and chalk it up to … inexperience?
What you saw was the searing response of a team that actually was experienced under bright lights. A team coming off a pair of seven-game series, that won a pair of elimination road games along the way, that wasn’t scared nor cared about “experience” in the Finals because, between the lines, this just another postseason game, as coach Ime Udoka stressed.
“The message at the start of the fourth was, ‘We’ve been here before,’” said Jaylen Brown. “We know what it takes to overcome a deficit like that.”
About that fourth quarter (in which Boston outscored Golden State 40-16): Brown took over from Tatum and Boston was emphatically dominant at both ends, and this method of destruction particularly left the Warriors shook, because …
2. The Celtics beat the Warriors at their own game
Wait, come again? Did the Celtics actually out-small the Warriors and also out-shoot them from deep? Sure did, managing to throw the Finals and the Warriors for a loop.
The usual roles were reversed and the outcome was delivered in a most unanticipated manner: The Celtics shot 51% from deep for the game and made seven 3s to start the fourth. Against the Warriors. Against Curry and Klay Thompson. This was a case of stolen identity. The tables were turned and the Warriors’ heads are still spinning from it. Ours, too.
The Celtics did their damage in the moment of truth with Brown, Marcus Smart, Payton Prichard and Derrick White … who shot 7-for-10 from deep in the fourth.
It’s probably not reasonable to think the Celtics will shoot that scorching again, or even get this level of production from their role players collectively. But: They did exactly that for a game in the Finals, which they stole. And usually it takes one stolen game to win a title.
“What’s rewarding is we know we can play so much better,” said Udoka. “We pride ourselves on everybody being able to contribute on both ends.”
3. It wasn’t all bad for the Warriors
Hey, Curry is on a mission to not only win a fourth championship, but also a first Finals MVP award. Wasn’t that evident by how he started the game, and partly how he finished?
Curry doesn’t own a catalogue of brilliant Finals performances, which is why he also doesn’t own that MVP trophy, either. He scored 21 points in the first quarter when the Celtics, for some reason, played a drop coverage and went under screens, leaving Curry open looks. He was on pace to finally get a 40-piece in this postseason (he came six short, though).
There was more: The Warriors were bullish on the boards, with Kevon Looney, once again, keeping possessions alive with offensive rebounds (six). Also, Otto Porter Jr. returned from injury to supply 12 points off the bench and, along with Curry, was the only consistent 3-point shooter (4-5 3PM).
So this really amounted to a poor fourth quarter for the Warriors. Until they prove otherwise, Jordan Poole will give more than nine points, and figure Thompson will be a better version as well.
“We’ll all play better in Game 2,” Curry said. “We’ve done it before and have a lot of confidence to do it again. This series is just getting started.”
4. You can call him Al Hungry
How’s the old NBA saying go? Never underestimate the heart of a wanna-be first-time champion?
The Al Horford Comeback Tour is busy spreading pixie dust once again, this time fueling a player who turns 36 Friday, here in the Finals, where he’s never been until now. After what he did against the Bucks and Heat in the previous rounds, a grand entrance in the Finals shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Horford was at times the best player on the floor in Thursday’s second half which, okay, was a bit surprising, given he shared the court with a former two-time Kia MVP and young stars in their prime; Horford is neither.
For the first time this postseason, Horford (26 points) led the Celtics in scoring, but it was the efficiency (9-12 FGs, 6-8 3PM) that trumped all else in his box score. The way Horford sank timely 3s in the fourth quarter, applied traps defensively, and essentially showed the leadership the Celtics have valued since his return this season proved invaluable.
“I’m just grateful to be in this position,” he said. “Going out and playing good basketball. That’s what it is.”
Here’s what he didn’t say: Horford perhaps believes, deep down, he might not get another chance this golden again, so he must cash in now. And even if that’s not necessarily true, it’s perhaps the right mindset to have to allow that motivation — or desperation — to instill a sense of urgency within an aging player. If you were disastrous in Philadelphia next to Joel Embiid, and then put on ice in Oklahoma City before boomeranging back to Boston, you might understand why he feels a certain way.
5. The ball didn’t fall right for Tatum
But if his playoff pattern stays true, the ball will bounce back for him come Sunday.
And that’s what should concern the Warriors. Not only did they lose a game with Tatum misfiring (3-17 FGs), they must anticipate a strong Game 2 response. Tatum has been mostly magnificent this postseason, though he did have some duds: shooting 5-for-16 in one game against the Nets, 4-for-19 in another against the Bucks, 3-for-14 once against Miami.
Next game? He scored 39, 30 and 31 respectively.
Clearly, the trapping and shifting Warriors tried to force Tatum to sacrifice the ball, which he did, to mostly solid results. Tatum made plays for others, as his 13 assists attested … he just couldn’t make plays for himself. He forced some shots, missed others while wide open, and the Warriors will take that tradeoff.
They didn’t expect White, a role player and 27% 3-point shooter during the playoffs, to score 21 off the bench and essentially cover for Tatum. White might never be this efficient again in the Finals, but just the same, Tatum might not be this chilly, either.
All of which puts Boston in a great spot. If Tatum bounces back in a big way in Game 2 — the Celtics usually win when he does — this series will get heated in a hurry.
“I don’t expect to shoot that bad again,” he said. “But if it means we keep winning, I’ll take it.”
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