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Figuring out the formula against the Warriors

The series is still up for grabs, but momentum is very much on Boston’s side.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics
Jaylen Brown swats a Klay Thompson shot in the fourth quarter of Game 3 on Wednesday.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When the Warriors unleashed a furious 12-0 run in two-plus minutes late in the third quarter of Game 3 on Wednesday, it felt like déjá vú for the Celtics.

Perhaps Golden State was simply toying with them in the first half once again, only to shred them to smithereens when it mattered most. The Warriors had all the momentum following a Steph Curry avalanche that included a four-point play, and that overwhelming sense of uncertainty crept into every Celtics fan’s psyche just like it did in Game 2. Not again.

This time, though, the Celtics stayed sturdy and responded with a pivotal 20-8 run that paved the way for a signature 116-100 home win. Boston relied on its size, athleticism and hustle, as it has all season, to take a two games to one lead in the NBA Finals.

“We’re at our best when we respond,” Jayson Tatum said. “When things get tough. We regroup during the breaks and lock back in.”

While this series is still very much up for grabs, and will likely go six or seven games, it appears the Celtics are starting to figure out the formula against Golden State: value the ball, let their stars go to work, rely on their size and strength and, yes, withstand the inevitable run.

It all starts with making wise decisions against a team that capitalizes on just about everything. Limiting turnovers is essential, particularly in key moments, and particularly when Curry is hot. Boston turned it over 12 times in Game 1 and Game 3. While that number isn’t outstanding, it’s respectable against an opportunistic opponent that aggressively hunts for steals. The eighteen turnovers in Game 2 is simply too many.

The Warriors over the past seven years are maybe the best team in NBA history at turning one mistake from the opposition into a series of mistakes, and the Celtics need to avoid letting the damage escalate. Golden State can creep up like Wile E. Coyote, but the Celtics have to be able to slither away from catastrophe like Road Runner. In Game 3, when Golden State made its run, Boston regrouped and valued the ball at a crucial crossroads.

“We didn’t match them last game,” Marcus Smart said. “We had to tonight.”

Tatum and Jaylen Brown helped spearhead the run. They were in attack mode all night, looking to get downhill and finish at the rim, and they didn’t stop following Golden State’s comeback. The Warriors have some solid individual defenders, yet the physicality outside of Draymond Green isn’t what Boston grew accustomed to seeing against the Bucks and Heat. Curry has improved as a defender, but the Celtics are at their best when they’re punishing him and trying to get him into foul trouble.

Boston needs to continue to trust Tatum and Brown to exploit mismatches and make the right read. When the double comes, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to and calmly finding their teammates for open looks. Tatum is averaging 8.3 assists per game in the Finals, as head coach Ime Udoka’s vision is coming to fruition at the perfect time. Brown only turned it over twice in both Game 2 and Game 3 and has totaled 5 assists twice this series. He’s starting to make better decisions and his handle has looked a lot sharper. The Celtics have two of the three best players on the floor, as they did against Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami, and it’s their time to shine.

Boston’s size is also one of its main advantages. Robert Williams is starting to move better and picked an excellent time to put forth one of the biggest performances of his life. He had 8 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks and was a game-high plus-21, and everyone in the Celtics’ starting five had at least 6 rebounds. Boston out-rebounded Golden State 47-31, including 15-6 on the offensive glass.

A huge hustle play – in which both Robert and Grant Williams kept the play alive and Smart retained possession – changed the momentum early in the fourth quarter. Then Grant Williams swooped in, grabbed a rebound off a Smart miss and laid it up and in to push the margin back to 11.

After scoring just 14 points itself in the third quarter of Game 2, Boston held Golden State to 11 in the fourth quarter of Game 3. Much like in Game 1, the Celtics stayed afloat and then pounced in one fluid motion – a pattern Golden State knows very well.

The Celtics may have wilted initially Wednesday, but they displayed the mental toughness that’s been present all postseason when it mattered most. When it came to hustle plays, the bigs were largely responsible for providing energy and effort.

While those bigs excelled in many areas, they struggled defending the pick and roll with Curry as the primary ball-handler. For some reason they’re having trouble deciding whether to get up in Curry’s face or stay back and protect the paint. It’s not rocket science: get in his face – always.

Even if Curry drives and floats it up and in, or finds someone like Andrew Wiggins or Otto Porter for a contested 3, that’s not the end of the world. Curry’s bombs are like oxygen for Golden State, and that ripple effect can often be insurmountable. He had too much space in Game 3, and that has to change going forward.

“I definitely put some of those on me, and I need to be better in those positions,” Al Horford said.

The same is true for Klay Thompson coming off screens, as Robert Williams and Horford always need to get around Green and Kevon Looney the best they can to beat Thompson to the spot. Of course that’s easier said than done, but they need to make a conscious effort to play up and alter the shot as much as possible.

If the Celtics continue to follow the blueprint that’s gotten them here, they should find themselves in an ideal spot with an excellent chance to finish what they’ve started.

“We’ve been battle-tested throughout the playoffs,” Udoka said. “We’ve seen what makes us successful and just have to carry it over.”

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