BOSTON — The NBA Finals have reached the stage where one team is halfway to a championship. So why does this series seem so tight and uncertain, anyway?
Give the edge — at least momentarily — to the Celtics, now up 2-1 on the Warriors after a 16-point win that wasn’t accomplished without some perspiration and angst.
Here are five takeaways from a Game 3 that, for a brief third-quarter moment, froze the folks inside TD Garden:
1. Celtics overcome a tremendous opponent — themselves.
Hard to tell who tried harder to beat Boston in this Game 3. Was it the Warriors fortified by a Splash Brothers reunion, or the Celtics doomed by all their self-inflicted contusions?
The fact that this is even up for debate explains the depth of the Celtics’ carelessness and how they nearly destructed amid an avalanche of turnovers and yet another head-scratching third quarter. Those twin evils have perplexed Boston throughout this series and it’s a minor surprise they’re up a game in spite of it all.
Their passes are often an adventure; the Celtics bring a habit of driving the lane and then kicking the ball out, often into the wrong hands. And Marcus Smart — who otherwise played terrifically at both ends — was at the epicenter of it all, with five turnovers (he’s up to 10 in the last two games). They also missed seven free throws. As for the third quarter, the Warriors have owned them all: 38-24 in Game 1, 35-14 in Game 2, and then a larger-than-it-seemed eight-point swing Wednesday in a game they never controlled until then.
But that’s the bad part for Boston. Now for the good: The resiliency of this Celtics squad surfaced once again, as it has since late January when their season flipped favorably. Boston’s defense squeezed the Warriors dry in the fourth quarter, allowing just nine points before the subs checked in with a few minutes left. Jayson Tatum fired the warning shot by finishing strong. Coming off a frustrating two-point performance in Game 2, Smart was a much-needed third source of points (24) on Wednesday. And Jaylen Brown, who had 17 of his team’s 33 points in the first quarter, regained his bounce.
Just when it seemed another Warriors’ second-half rally was in the works, Boston refused to cave — so much for championship inexperience. The Celtics still haven’t dropped consecutive games this postseason.
“Another bounce-back from us,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “We’ve done this after losses.”
2. Draymond raises the temperature, Celtics meet it.
This is an unofficial research conclusion based purely on the level of colorful Game 3 language from the seats inside TD Garden, but Draymond Green has now replaced the New York Yankees on the short list of folks the Boston sports fan finds distasteful. And it’s baseball season.
More important is how the Celtics fought his fire with a blowtorch by delivering their most physical showing of the series to date and, just for kicks, throwing Draymond’s trashy-talk right back at him; Grant Williams served as voluntary yell leader.
Boston brought a size advantage into this series and finally flexed that muscle, with 52 points inside the paint and bodies on the floor during crucial moments in the fourth quarter. The sequence that sealed the victory was distinctively Boston blue collar: Smart, Al Horford and Robert Williams did a collective dive while chasing a loose ball with four minutes left. After a brief wrestling match with Steph Curry, Smart came away with the prize, absorbed the foul and unleashed a yell. Horford then threw a lob to Williams for a dunk and a 14-point lead and that was a wrap.
As for Draymond, he was quiet in one sense: He never impacted the game, easily his weakest effort of the series. Finishing with four rebounds and three missed shots in four tries, he had the attention of the crowd, for all the wrong reasons. He played, by his estimation, “like crap. I was soft.”
As for the crowd being on his case? Warriors coach Steve Kerr sarcastically described the chants as “classy, very classy.” This probably indicates the atmosphere will be the same Friday for Game 4 (9 ET, ABC). Will Green be a different player? That’s a more important issue for the Warriors.
3. Wasted Klay.
Oh, look: Klay Thompson found his groove. The Warriors knew this was only a matter of time and the Celtics knew this was coming as well, but when?
Well: The wait is over, and while there’s no guarantee that Thompson turned the corner for good with his breakout 25 points in Game 3, it’s the most encouraging sign for the Warriors heading into Game 4. Thompson hadn’t put his stamp on the series until now, and his 4-for-19 Game 2 dud was particularly troubling. The Warriors were never stressed; actually, they kept feeding Thompson, who never runs empty on confidence, and he responded, shooting 5-for-13 from deep after making just four 3s in the previous two games combined. That put the Boston defense on red alert.
There was beauty in how Thompson and Curry, for the first time in these Finals, made it seem like 2018 all over again by taking turns dropping shots and giving the Warriors a chance to win. For a while, they seemed to have Boston spooked and worried.
The trick now for Thompson is to keep that flow and feeling and show it for a second straight game. The last time he had back-to-back 20-plus scoring games was the first round against Denver. That was late April. It’s June. And the Celtics, a top defensive team, will expect his best.
4. One-legged Time Lord is good enough.
Celtics center Robert Williams III used one good leg to put the Celtics one game up in this series. If this were February and the Celtics were playing the Kings, for example, it’s unlikely Williams would even be on the floor.
“It’s been rough,” he admitted.
But he was the X-factor Wednesday, using his size and hops and appetite for rim protection to make a big Game 3 difference from a physical and strength standpoint. This was remarkable in that Williams dragged a bum knee into this series and took further hits on it once the Finals began. He was limited to 26 minutes Wednesday but corralled 10 rebounds — helping the Celtics grab 16 on the offensive glass — and delivered four resounding blocks.
Even in that limited time, Williams was the most important, if not best, big man all night. His intimidation in the paint proved especially important when the score tightened and the Celtics turned to defense to save them.
As for the discomfort? “It’s worth it, for sure,” he said. If the Celtics grab another pair of games, Williams won’t feel a thing.
5. Warriors one Friday stumble away from a tight spot.
The last time the Warriors fell behind 3-1 in the Finals was 2019, but there was one major caveat: Kevin Durant only made a cameo against the Raptors. It didn’t end well for Golden State; Thompson injured his knee in Game 6 and the three-peat attempt was snuffed, with Durant opting to recover across the country in Brooklyn.
Entering Friday’s Game 4, the Warriors are healthy but facing a tough-minded Boston team on the road. Also, they surrendered 68 points in the first half to Boston on Wednesday and must whip together a plan to neutralize the Celtics’ size, which was literally and figuratively large in Game 3.
The Warriors played their poorest game and still held a second-half lead. It took them only nine minutes in the third to grab control of the game.
There’s a team that’s ahead in this series, but this series seems close, almost even, anyway. What happens in one game doesn’t necessarily spill into the next one. That’s what makes Friday almost unpredictable. Right now, the only constant in the Finals has been Steph Curry, so the Warriors have that — and only that — in their favor.
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