Drew Dykowski, Editor-In-Chief
Jaylen Brown (7) and Al Horford (42) high-five during the Boston Celtics victory against the Golden State Warriors Thursday night. Photo//Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports.
With all that was stacked against them, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the Boston Celtics would lose Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night.
Boston was coming off a grinding, seven-game series against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals that concluded just four days earlier and were facing a Golden State team that had nearly everything going in their favor.
While the Celtics endured their grueling series against the Heat, the Warriors easily dismantled the Dallas Mavericks in five games and had over a week of rest prior to Game 1. This rest allowed prominent role players Andre Iguodala, Gary Payton II, and Otto Porter Jr. to recover from injuries as well.
The Warriors also have significantly more Finals experience than their opponent. While nobody on the Celtics roster has ever been to the Finals, the Warriors have a whopping 123 combined games of Finals experience. This experience was mostly a result of Golden State making the Finals for five consecutive years from 2015 to 2019.
Aside from having an advantage in rest and experience, Golden State was also playing at home in San Francisco where they had yet to be beaten in the playoffs.
Through the first three quarters of play, it appeared that all of the Warriors’ advantages were too much for the Celtics to handle. Stephen Curry scored 21 points (6-8 3PM) in the first quarter as several defensive breakdowns by Boston led Curry to have wide open looks at the basket.
Boston was lucky to only be down 32-28 at the end of the first quarter, as nearly every Celtic seemed nervous and the pressure of the Finals appeared to be too much for the young squad.
Despite the Celtics recovering in the second quarter and holding a 56-54 lead at halftime, the Warriors went on one of their patented third quarter runs and outscored the Celtics 38-24 in the frame. Andrew Wiggins scored 12 points, Curry added another nine, and Golden State was poised to cruise to an easy Game 1 victory in front of a raucous Chase Center crowd.
Then, the fourth quarter started, and the Celtics forgot that they were not supposed to win this game. Big shots by Jaylen Brown (10 fourth quarter points) and clutch threes from Derrick White helped the Celtics storm back to tie the game at 103 a piece with just under six minutes to play.
Al Horford, playing in his first NBA Finals after an illustrious 15-year career, then threw the clock back to 2014 and scored eight unanswered points to give Boston a 111-103 lead.
Back-to-back threes from reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and an and-one from Horford sealed a stunning 120-108 Game 1 victory for the Celtics.
Boston finished the game on a 17-5 run and became the first team to win an NBA Finals game by double digits after trailing by double digits to start the fourth.
The key to Boston’s victory was giving the Warriors a taste of their own medicine. In the fourth quarter, Celtics coach Ime Udoka moved away from his traditional big men lineups that relied heavily on minutes from Horford, Daniel Theis, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams. Udoka instead elected to have Horford and Robert Williams split time at the center position and give more minutes to White and fellow guard Payton Pritchard.
This rotation, which also featured Brown, Smart, and Eastern Conference Finals MVP Jayson Tatum, proved to be the perfect anecdote to Golden State’s vaunted death lineup led by Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
In switching to this more guard-heavy lineup, the Celtics outshot the Warriors from three (9-12 to 2-8) and outscored them 40-16 in the fourth. Boston was more active and agile on the defensive end with the smaller rotation while also being quicker on the glass, out rebounding Golden State 11-6 in the frame.
It took the Celtics a mere three quarters to overcome their initial fear and anxiety of being in the NBA Finals, meaning we should be in store for a classic series.
Al Horford flexes after the game-sealing bucket against the Golden State Warriors. Photo//Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images.
If the Celtics win this series, Game 1 will go down as the Al Horford Game, or the Derrick White Game, or just simply the Other Guys Game. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown may have led the Celtics to this stage, but Game 1 proved that Boston’s role players are just as important to their postseason success.
Horford’s performance was most impressive. Just one year ago, the 15-year veteran big man was buried on an horrendous Oklahoma City Thunder team and was viewed more as a bad contract rather than the All-Star center he once was. This year, however, he has had big playoff performances to help the Celtics knock off the Bucks and Heat, and the soon-to-be 36-year old Horford continued his career resurgence against the Warriors on Thursday.
In 32 minutes of action, Horford had 26 points (9-12 FGs, 6-8 3PM), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and one steal. Big Al was also active on the defensive end and provided steady leadership when the Celtics were down early.
While Horford was the MVP of the game, White was a close second. The former San Antonio Spur was electric off the bench and seemed to have an answer every time the Warriors began to go on a run. White finished with 21 points (6-11 FGs, 5-8 3PM) and three assists.
Despite not garnering as many headlines as Horford or White, Brown quietly had a superstar performance in his Finals debut and kickstarted the Celtics comeback. He filled up the box score, finishing with 24 points (10-23 FGs), 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and one block.
Marcus Smart added 18 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals while still battling with a sore ankle.
A notable omission from Boston’s standout performances is All-NBA forward Jayson Tatum. After winning the Eastern Conference Finals MVP award just days before, Tatum was largely non-existent in Game 1. He contributed just 12 points and had a horrendous shooting night (3-17 FGs, 1-5 3PM). Tatum did finish with an impressive 13 assists in the contest but will need to do more in the scoring department if the Celtics are to maintain their advantage in the series.
For the Warriors, Stephen Curry led the way and appears determined to win his first career Finals MVP award. Following his 21-point first quarter explosion, Curry ended the night with 34 points (12-25 FGs, 7-14 3PM), 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals.
Andrew Wiggins added 20 points (8-15 FGs, 2-7 3PM), 5 rebounds, and 3 blocks, while Klay Thompson contributed another 15 points (6-14 FGs, 3-7 3PM). Both Wiggins and Thompson will need to get more shots and capitalize on more three pointers if the Warriors are to compete with the Celtics’ depth.
Looking Ahead to Game 2
Stephen Curry (30) and the Warriors will look to even up the series against Marcus Smart (36) and the Celtics on Sunday. Photo//Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.
For the Celtics, they showed incredible perseverance and tenacity that is unexpected from a team with so little experience. They also showcased their depth and proved that they can win even when Tatum has a bad performance.
Defensively, they largely contained Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Jordan Poole, while also limiting Stephen Curry to just 13 points in the final three quarters of play.
Ime Udoka, who is in his first year as Boston’s head coach, erased any doubts about his coaching ability on the NBA’s biggest stage. His fourth quarter adjustment to go small was the difference in earning the Celtics the victory, and he appears to be a worthy foe to legendary Golden State coach Steve Kerr.
While the Celtics have lots to celebrate, there were also several deficiencies shown on Thursday night. They started the game flat and often lost defensive assignments, which resulted in wide-open threes from Curry, Andrew Wiggins, and Otto Porter Jr.
Boston will also need to ensure the anxieties that plagued them to start Game 1 do not reappear in Game 2. Golden State is a championship team that is going to come out hungry in the next game to establish the tone and even up the series. The Celtics were able to withstand similar charges from the Bucks and Heat in earlier playoff series, but the Warriors are a different animal.
Although the inexperience of Boston is still a concern, their big issue in Game 1 was the disappearance of Jayson Tatum. Tatum is an All-NBA player who finished sixth in MVP voting and established himself as a true superstar this season. However, if he truly is a bonafide superstar, he cannot score just 12 points in an NBA Finals game and shoot as badly as he did in Game 1.
The role players were able to save the day on Thursday, but it is extremely unlikely that Al Horford and Derrick White will again combine for 47 points and shoot 11-16 from three. Tatum will need to step up if Boston is going to win their first championship since 2008.
On the other side of the court, it may seem at first glance that the Warriors need to make sweeping changes following a devastating Game 1 loss. However, they largely outplayed Boston for three quarters and were the better team for the majority of the game.
Stephen Curry looked determined to silence his playoff doubters and have a monster Finals performance, while Andrew Wiggins stepped up and had a solid all-around game. Otto Porter Jr., Kevon Looney, and Andre Iguodala were all good in their roles as well.
Aside from the fourth quarter, the Warriors played very well defensively, completely took Tatum out of the game, and did not appear to miss a beat after not being in the Finals since 2019.
They also should benefit in Game 2 as players like Horford and White will probably not be as hot from the field as they were in the first game.
The main thing Golden State needs to do in Game 2 is not let their foot off the gas pedal and continue to play until the final whistle. After their dominant third quarter, it looked like the Warriors put themselves on cruise control and assumed the Celtics would just roll over in the fourth. This obviously was not the case, and the Warriors will likely not let that happen again as they move forward through this series.
It will also be interesting to see if Udoka sticks with Boston’s version of the death lineup in Game 2, and, if he does, how will Kerr gameplan to contain it.
In addition to the fourth quarter collapse, it is concerning that most of Golden State’s stars did not play to their full capabilities.
Klay Thompson had just 15 points and got burned several times on defense, further cementing the fact that he is no longer the defensive stalwart he once was. Fellow Splash Brother Jordan Poole was downright terrible in his first career Finals game, finishing with 9 points (2-7 FGs, 1-5 3PM) and 4 turnovers. If Poole does not improve soon, he may find himself out of the rotation, as Boston is a matchup nightmare for the young star.
Draymond Green stuffed the box score (4 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals), but also shot an atrocious 2-12 FGs and had 3 turnovers. Stephen Curry also disappointed following his incredible first quarter, scoring just 13 points on 5-16 FGs and 1-6 3PM in the other three quarters combined.
Golden State’s stars have proven consistently over the last decade that they can rebound after poor performances, so they will look to do the same in Game 2. It is worth noting, however, that Curry and Co. did run into some issues against Boston’s stout defense, and these problems may continue unless Golden State makes some adjustments.
Each of these questions and concerns will be answered in what should be a very entertaining Game 2, which tips off at 8 P.M. on Sunday at the Chase Center.
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