NBA Finals: Warriors have no margin for error vs. physical, tested Celtics
SAN FRANCISCO — What began as a Chase Center revival ended with its patrons feeling like money was taken from their pockets to a nonexistent building fund.
It’s an unfamiliar feeling to these Golden State Warriors, be it in this brand-spanking-new building or even the old heavenly one, to be victims of thievery in plain sight and apparently powerless to prevent being ransacked.
Usually Stephen Curry blitzes end up sending even the most determined squads cowering to their corners, but the Warriors haven’t encountered these Boston Celtics, who seemed determined not to repeatedly inflict wounds on themselves to begin the NBA Finals.
The Celtics stole Game 1 Thursday with a 120-108 win, delivering a powerful message to the team riding waves of good vibes and revisionist history since qualifying for its sixth Finals in eight years.
The inscription “no margin for error here” was the only evidence the Celtics left behind. The Celtics caught up to the Warriors, stared them down on their home court, then ran past them and flexed on the way out.
There was either too much made of the so-called inexperience gap, or the Celtics were fast learners over this playoff run. These Warriors historically set the tone in the Steve Kerr era (27-2 in Game 1s before Thursday) with notable exceptions — in 2016 against Oklahoma City and the 2019 Finals against Toronto.
The commonality: A bigger, more physically imposing team dictating the terms of engagement, and the Warriors fell behind 3-1 in both series.
Sounds a lot like these Celtics.
“They went on like a little 7-0 run to start the fourth quarter, and look up and it’s only five points, and none of those guys have been in the Finals before,” Curry said. “Those are little momentum swings that you can step on the gas and take a team’s confidence away. You have to capitalize on that. We didn’t do that in the third quarter, that last minute or so, and then to start the fourth quarter.”
Golden State often plays dangerously — it’s been a hallmark through this glorious run — but often its talent overcomes such lapses. But being doubled up and then some in the fourth quarter (40-16) has to produce at least some cause for concern, after the Celtics took the Warriors’ dare in letting Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Derrick White shoot to their hearts’ content.
“My gut reaction, what I just witnessed, they came in and played a hell of a fourth quarter, and you have to give them credit. It’s pretty much as simple as that,” Kerr said. “They put a lot of pressure on you. But I thought we had some really good moments. We had 38 in the third quarter. We had a good run there. It was mainly the fourth quarter that got us.”
It’s easy to decipher the postgame sermon, either from Kerr to the players or the players among themselves. They believe they controlled the contest for 42 minutes, then suffered through an opponent catching fire in the last six.
If that’s their diagnosis, one built from hubris and not true evaluation between now and Sunday, they’ll find themselves shocked and bewildered headed to Boston down two games and staring at dire circumstances.
“I think they stayed within striking distance, and they made shots late. So we’ll be fine,” Draymond Green said. “We pretty much dominated the game for the first 41, 42 minutes. So we’ll be fine.”
Curry hit a record six triples in the first quarter (and scored 21 of his game-high 34 points), but the Celtics weren’t budging, methodically chopping away and taking a halftime lead before the Warriors hit them again, and hit them harder in the third.
The Warriors seemed to tip their hats to the Celtics for their resilience, with the trio shooting 15 of 23 from 3-point range. It’s a compromise they feel they must make to defend the explosive scoring tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, even though the Warriors themselves are as potent a defensive unit as the Celtics are.
Tatum had a stinker of a night, but his 13 assists was the highest output of the season, and one wonders how the Warriors will handle things once he inevitably makes those contested shots. They’re not playing against Maxi Kleber and Davis Bertans now; this is prime filet, not dog food.
“Al was spaced most of the game,” Curry said. “When he’s making shots like that and you’re slow to rotate, it’s another threat you have to worry about. Those two guys [Horford and White] are key. You hope they don’t stay hot, but also you’ve got to do something about it.”
Horford ran wild in the fourth, a man invigorated with new life after being reacquired by the Celtics after a year in Oklahoma City purgatory and having played the most playoff games without reaching the Finals.
After Brown got things going following the Warriors taking a decisive third-quarter lead, Horford took over to score 11 in the fourth. The home team aided in things, with turnovers and disjointed play that couldn’t be overcome — the deficiencies that were covered by the ills and inexperience of the last two opponents, Memphis and Dallas.
There’s something to be said about the road traveled to the championship round. History often marks it as a demerit but in real time, a path too easy can soften up a bunch. The street fights the Celtics emerged from left them battered but bold, and wholly unbothered by a Curry early flurry.
The Warriors traditionally run away and hide — starting from their death lineup days or now, jumping on an opponent after halftime. The patrons of Chase Center had seen this movie so many times, they sat on the edge of boredom, waiting for a challenge.
And they found it, a tidal wave that felt like an earthquake.
They aren’t shaken to their core; the leaders are far too experienced to have this affect their confidence, and the rest of the roster will follow suit. But the Warriors not named Curry, Green and Klay Thompson haven’t been here before, and no one can pretend their importance lessens at this stage. One could make the argument it’s magnified considering how relentless the Celtics have been the past two months. With no true challenger in the West to make life hard for the Warriors, there was an inflated sense of how good this team is.
Jordan Poole struggled, and so did the decorated Green, who was issued a strategic challenge by the Celtics in leaving him open. Unlike Horford, he couldn’t make them pay, going 2 for 12.
“I don’t think in any NBA Finals you’re going to have a margin of error,” Green said. “That’s what this team has to understand. When you get to this — when you get to this point in the season, this level, there is no margin for error. It’s two great teams, and the team that makes the less mistakes is going to win the game, and they did that.”
It’s supposed to be hard, and the Warriors have made the impossible often look easy. But this ain’t easy.
“We’ve always embraced challenges. It’s no different,” Green said. “We’ll embrace this one.”