The Celtics’ comeback win over the Warriors on Thursday was anything but picturesque.
Boston shot a lower percentage than Golden State, had more turnovers and had seven fewer assists. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown finished a combined 33 percent from the field.
The Celtics needed a gritty fourth quarter to come back, then they almost blew it late in overtime. They were sloppy with the ball in critical moments and nearly collapsed on multiple occasions.
Nothing came easily, but in a way, that made the triumph even more significant and more convincing. Boston’s 121-118 victory was its most impressive of the season and one of its most impressive in the Tatum and Brown era.
“It felt like a high-level basketball game with two really, really good teams throwing haymakers at each other,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said.
Joe Mazzulla on Celtics-Warriors ️— NBA (@NBA) January 20, 2023
"It felt like a high-level basketball game with two really really good teams throwing haymakers at each other." pic.twitter.com/MQ079kmWQP
Now that they’ve secured this victory, they can breathe a collective sigh of relief and truly and fully put last year’s NBA Finals loss behind them.
The Celtics were saying and doing all the right things, but it was obvious they were still thinking about last year in the first meeting between the teams this season. Thursday night, they seemed like an energized, unified group focused on this game and this game only.
“The fact of the matter is we lost. We lost the championship,” Tatum said. “No one win – we can’t bring that back. We can’t go back in time and change that. So, we didn’t look at this as a rematch of the Finals. It’s just one game.”
The reality is, though, this wasn’t just one game. It means more every time these teams match up, but the Celtics channeled that energy in the right way. Their motivation was obvious, but their frustration wasn’t. Most importantly, they did it together.
Tatum finished with 34 points, 19 rebounds and six assists and hit timely shots. Not bad for an off night. Brown made sound decisions with the ball and showed his growth as a playmaker, only turning it over twice. He also hit the game’s biggest shot and perfectly struck the balance between looking for his offense and finding others.
Al Horford was everywhere – swatting shot on one end and hitting 3’s on the other. This one meant more to him, and he carried himself like a lion defending his turf. Marcus Smart, in classic Smart fashion, made some head-scratching plays at times but redeemed himself over and over.
Malcolm Brogdon solidified his status as the missing piece this team needed. Robert Williams consistently reminded Golden State that he requires attention.
When the Celtics fell behind by 9 early in the fourth, there was no panic or doubt. It was easy to tell they genuinely believed they could come back. They continued to chip away, were the tougher team and made winning plays with the game on the line.
Next time they fall behind against a strong team, they have this win to lean on as a reminder that no game is out of reach. No team is more difficult to out-poise than the Warriors – yes, even the sub-.500 Warriors – and the Celtics beat them at their own game.
“To be able have to poise, to battle back, that shows a lot of growth that we’ve made,” Brown said. “We’ve been taking steps in the right direction.”
"The energy level was high... we just battled it out"— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 20, 2023
Jaylen Brown on the C's ability to fight back tonight pic.twitter.com/Rlfy8Tcj1c
They fought over screens and shadowed Steph Curry as well as they could. They continued to run solid offense in the game’s defining moments. They didn’t give up on plays and recovered admirably to alter layup attempts.
Dozens of little plays ended up altering the outcome in a major way. The Celtics looked like the team they did during last year’s run to the Finals, not the one that wilted against Golden State.
The Finals loss will always be there to some degree, but now they can officially close that chapter.
It’s a new journey, in a new year, and this team is the best in the NBA. If the Celtics end up facing the Warriors in the Finals again, they don’t need to think back to last year’s shortcomings. Instead, they can think back to this win, when they played with championship mettle.
“To be able to beat a team that comes out on top in those situations is what we want to be,” Brown said. “It’s good to get those tests. It’s good to get those in the regular season and get guys that chemistry, that confidence, because we expect to do that come playoff time.”