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C’s can’t complete torrid comeback in loss to Warriors

The next step after a bright second half: don’t dig themselves in a hole in the first place.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an old adage in the coaching profession that teams “cannot play small and slow.”

In Friday night’s showdown with NBA-best Golden State Warriors, the Boston Celtics were certainly on the smaller end. Al Horford, Grant Williams, Jabari Parker, Juancho Hernangomez and Sam Hauser were all placed in COVID protocols and unavailable to play. As the Celtics started Romeo Langford in place of Horford, everyone knew the C’s would attempt to pick up the pace a bit.

The only trouble: their opponent is the master of small and speed. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins were able to turn up the pace early and prove that the C’s, even with a downsized lineup, were not ready for the challenge.

Boston had three turnovers in the opening 90 seconds, and then Curry got loose for seven early points (including two triples) as the Warriors stormed out to a 14-3 run.

After the timeout, the C’s tightened some of the screws on their defense, particularly off-ball and found ways to stick with Curry a little tighter around all the screens, handoffs and improvised actions.

Offensively, it was all Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown early. The duo combined for 17 points and 6 assists in the first half, steadying the shorthanded group. Tatum’s passing was incredibly impressive early, accounting for five assists, including this masterpiece of a dime at the end of the first quarter to Aaron Nesmith in the corner.

The C’s made a solid effort to close the half, only for it to be undone by a poorly-timed foul on Marcus Smart that resulted in four points for the Dubs. Those four points were Curry’s only of the quarter, a result of their much more dialed-in defense.

It felt like the Brad Stevens-era Celtics made an appearance out of the half, angry and with vengeance on their minds. The C’s came out absolutely swinging to negate the rough start and storm back into the game after a halftime that featured Ime Udoka showing clips of them getting out-muscled and beaten to 50-50 balls.

Lead by undeniable offense from Tatum and Brown, the C’s were able to get hot and start on a 17-5 run with all points scored by their dynamic duo. The surge cut the deficit to two less than halfway through the quarter.

From there, an emotional marathon ensued. A back-and-forth affair couldn’t be shaken. The Warriors would break away briefly, extending leads up to as high as ten, but the C’s would chip away. Key minutes were given by Aaron Nesmith (11 points in 23 minutes), including a massive and-one following an attack of a poor closeout:

What was so great to see from this group was the emotion coming out of the half. A team of mild-mannered, level-headed stars — and Marcus Smart — routinely appears more calculated than reactive to the moment. During the second half, the joy and passion really came through on their comeback. Seeing guys like Nesmith get fired up and show some emotion energized the crowd, creating a nice feedback loop that would carry the Celtics to the finish line.

Down ten with three minutes to play, Robert Williams showed why he needs to be included in the offense more as a roll man. He’s freakishly athletic and can climb the ladder to hammer down some impressive alley-oops. When paired with a willing passer in the PNR, Williams is damn near impossible to stop:

In the next two minutes, the Celtics energy once again cut into the lead. With just under a minute remaining, Golden State was leading by three before Curry wiggled loose for a floater and got a major stop by stonewalling Brown in the mid-range.

There were a ton of positives to take away from this game. Shorthanded and missing several key contributors, the Celtics showed a ton of fight. Positive contributions from Nesmith and Josh Richardson flanked their star wings who once again did all the heavy lifting. Spirited defense showed how this team can be among the league’s elite when engaged on that end.

The biggest issues for the Celtics were the hole they dug and who they played. Stephen Curry and the Warriors were better for longer stretches, refused to choke down the stretch and capitalized on a sluggish start for the home team. We just need to see the C’s effort in the second half for a full 48 minutes and not have, as Udoka noted, a tale of two halves.