We’d seen this script before. Fans with any kind of decent memory recognized it. In the NBA Finals, as Golden State locked in and took a double-digit knockout lead. Turn off your TVs, the game is over. Or as the late-great Chick Hearn would say “The game’s in the refrigerator, the door’s closed, the light’s out, the eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard and the Jello’s jiggling.”
The offensive ability of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors’ supporting cast has been enough to never put in jeopardy contests that made so many championship-round games feel routine from 2015-19.
Turns out the two-year NBA Finals hiatus might’ve changed what we can expect from the Bay Area.
The Celtics, written off as runners-up by some, trailed by as many as 15 on Thursday night and won Game 1 on the road by a dozen. The victory came despite Jayson Tatum shooting 3-for-17 from the field in one of his worst performances of the playoffs. That 24-point swing alone in the fourth quarter is such an outlier from Golden State’s run of form over the last decade by itself.
What makes Game 1 astonishing is how it went down. Boston looked good but wasn’t spectacular in any fashion. Derrick White outplayed Marcus Smart, a huge irregularity. Yet the Celtics found a way to dominate the Warriors down the stretch the way Golden State has overpowered so many others. If anyone thought they had these finals figured out heading into Thursday, they’re almost certainly wrong on Friday.
Where among the minority contingent who believed Boston would win this series existed folks who thought it would get a victory with a dreadful Tatum? Who could have predicted Al Horford scoring 26 with 6 3-pointers? Who among the more vocal majority thought a humongous collapse with Curry pulling the strings was on the horizon? We’re down to a small fraction of the NBA’s fanbase guaranteed. The Celtics’ 17-0 fourth-quarter run was the second-biggest unanswered explosion in the last frame of a finals game in 50 years.
Curry was the game’s leading scorer with 34 points, a total that looks much less impressive with the added context of scoring only 13 in the game’s final three quarters. Quite the cool-off from the best shooter in the sport. Game 1 started off incredibly even with both teams not looking to make a mistake than throw their best shot and see if it lands. The third quarter tilted heavily to Golden State and deja vu from Warriors teams of the last decade vividly came back. And the bubble burst quicker than anyone reminisced.
Last year’s NBA Finals was the first without the Warriors or LeBron James since 2010, when Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum were starting for the Lakers alongside Kobe Bryant to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy after defeating the Celtics in seven. Literally an entire decade of getting used to the norms and same faces competing for a title that included four straight years of both Golden State and the James-led Cavaliers as the last two standing. This year slipped back onto that pattern and probably led us all to rely on the NBA’s recent history too much.
That fourth-quarter whiplash will be felt for the rest of this series. Even if the Warriors win the next four, the fear of looking over their shoulder exists. You couldn’t imagine it before Thursday. How could it not creep into Steve Kerr’s head now? Now it’s vivid.
Draymond Green and the rest of Golden State have the composure to fight it off even though they didn’t and gave their home-court advantage away.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka has proclaimed throughout the playoffs how it wouldn’t be his Celtics team if things weren’t hard en route to a goal they wanted to achieve. Game 1 was no exception. There’s no doubt Boston has been through the fire, some of it unnecessary, to get out of the Eastern Conference. Thursday proved to be the best sign of going through that adversity. Udoka’s men never blinked at the reality of being down several possessions to the Warriors. How many other teams this season wouldn’t have crumbled? Before Thursday, I thought the answer was zero.
Golden State has plenty of time to regroup with Game 2 on Sunday night in what is now a must-win home game occuring much sooner than expected. The rebirth of the Warriors dynasty appeared to some to be more of a coronation in facing a young Boston squad. Those plans took a tumble and could soon be in freefall.