What was the message coming out of the Celtics’ locker room after overcoming a twelve-point deficit in the fourth quarter and stealing Game 1 and homecourt advantage from the Warriors?
They can be better.
For Boston, the many concerns heading into to The Finals materialized in the opener. A Steph Curry explosion? Curry had 21 points in the first quarter on 6-for-8 shooting from behind the arc, a Finals record. Offensive rebounds and turnovers? Golden State grabbed twelve and scored 26 second chance points and Boston seemed unpoised to start the game. Yet another third quarter collapse? After heading into halftime up two, the Celtics trailed by 12 heading into the final frame.
“Offensive rebounds to start the quarter. Turnovers to start the quarter,” head coach Ime Udoka said after another poor stretch after halftime. “We didn’t have an extremely high number — we finished with 13 — but we started the quarter off poorly in that area and hadn’t played our best by any stretch of the imagination.”
Still a lot of room for improvement.— Boston Celtics (@celtics) June 3, 2022
One down, three to go ☘️ pic.twitter.com/Um7PtQxOUu
But despite their mistakes and the drone of a broken record repeating over and over again what Boston had to avoid to win a championship, a deluge of threes and clutch play from Jaylen Brown in the fourth quarter fueled a monster 40-16 comeback to take Game 1.
As they have all season, the Celtics relied heavily on their #1 defense to turn the tide. With a lineup featuring starters and key reserves (Derrick White, Payton Pritchard, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams), they first matched the Warriors punch-for-punch and then eventually started stringing stops together on the defensive end.
“Our switches were aggressive. At times, our bigger guys were getting caught too low, especially when Curry was getting going early, so we wanted to go with a smaller unit and get more aggressive on the ball,” Udoka said.
“A lot of small-small. We did some pre-switching to keep our bigs out of the actions, took some time off the clock, and then, this is what we rely on all year: our one-on-one defense. Guys clamped in better, more physicality, more awareness on shooters and taking up some space. That seemed to wear them down a little bit.”
In a game where Jayson Tatum shot just 3-for-17 from the field (but did dish out 13 assists, a Finals record for a first time) and Boston looked unsure of their defensive strategy in the first quarter, the Celtics know they didn’t play their best, but are now three wins away from Banner 18.
Heading into Game 2 on Sunday, the biggest obstacle the Celtics might face is complacency. A split on the road to start The NBA Finals is great; taking two from the three-time champs at Chase Center would be better.
“Our last two series, we lost Game 1. This time of the season, you feel great when you win and you feel terrible after you lose. You got to be able to stay mellow, stay balanced, especially this early,” Tatum said. “It’s far from over. It’s just one game. We got to be ready for them to respond as if we would if we lost the first game.”