The first of what could be several rubber matches in a series that has been projected to go seven games was set for Boston on Friday night.
The Celtics were looking to avoid losing consecutive games in the playoffs for the first time in the post-season – they were 6-0 after losses heading into Game 3 at TD Garden in Boston.
The Warriors were looking to extend their streak of winning at least one road game in 26 playoff series, an NBA record. They’ll get another chance on Friday night after falling 116-100 to the Celtics and will try to avoid going down 3-1 in the series.
Here are some takeaways:
Jaylen Brown makes himself heard
The Celtics are actually built around a pair of young, all-star wings, but the emergence of Jayson Tatum as a first-team all-NBA player and a likely bet for Finals MVP if the Celtics go on to win the title has somewhat over-shadowed Jaylen Brown.
But Brown – a third overall pick in 2016, a year before Tatum was taken third – was determined to have an impact in Game 3.
He started the first quarter with a three, and also hit one to cap off the quarter. In between both? He got rolling. Brown passed crisply, put the ball on the floor and went through Draymond Green like a battering ram, finishing the frame with 17 points, five rebounds and three assists on 6-of-9 shooting – the main reason Boston jumped out to an impressive 33-22 first-quarter lead.
He had some good moments in the first two games but would get stalled at times – he came into Game 3 shooting just 37.5 per cent from the floor.
The question would be if he and the Celtics could sustain his strong start. He didn’t end up with 68 points, naturally, but Brown did find plenty of ways to contribute on his way to a Celtics-high 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
With Brown getting it going, the Warriors defence was spread too thin. Tatum finished with 26 points and nine assists while Marcus Smart added 24 points and five assists, making them the first trio of teammates to go for at least 20 points and five assists in the Finals since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper did it for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984, per ESPN.
Celtics Manage the Ball
From the Celtics' point of view, turnovers have been the story of their Finals run. When they cough the ball up 15 times or less, they are 12-2 in the playoffs. When it’s 16 or more, Boston is 1-5.
In-Game 2 it was 19 Celtics turnovers and a blowout win for the Warriors. Brown and Tatum have been some of the worst offenders for the Celtics, but the trick is having them continue to be aggressive, just tidier along the way.
“Understanding where your outlets are at, guys getting into spacing quicker,” was Celtics head coach Ime Udoka’s prescription. “A lot of times we're cutting or slashing or getting flares and kind of clogging the lane. We want to get spaced out well, but guys got to be decisive. Our scorers are scorers. They've improved as playmakers. Whether you go into the basket to score or make a pass, you have to kind of read the room, read what they're doing a little bit differently than other teams … [and] from there just read it but be aggressive.”
There was a moment when the Warriors were able to get Boston on the run with six minutes left in the third quarter as they used a 10-0 run that featured one live-ball turnover by Boston, one of eight in the first half for 14 Warriors points, but Brown and Tatum only had two combined. In the second half, the Celtics made just four turnovers, giving them 12 for the game, improving their record to 13-2 when they make 15 turnovers or less.
The Warriors win the third quarter – again.
As the New Orleans Pelicans' CJ McCollum tweeted the other day: “The Warriors are the best 3rd quarter team I’ve ever seen.”
That was in Game 1 when the Warriors looked like they were going to blow out Boston with a dominant showing after halftime, but had the tables turned when the Celtics went nuclear in the fourth. In Game 2 the Warriors did it again and were able to carry the momentum into the fourth for their own blowout win.
Big third quarters have been their trademark. In their previous five Finals runs the Warriors ranked first among playoff teams in third-quarter net rating and came into Game 3 plus-9.5 per 100 possessions immediately after halftime. No one really knows why, it just is.
The difference in Game 3 was that the Warriors needed to push to stay in the game after trailing by 12 at the half. Once again it was Curry doing the heavy lifting. When he was fouled by Al Horford on a deep three and made the shot and the free throw, the four-point play cut the Celtics' lead to five. Then, since Horford’s foul was deemed a flagrant, the Warriors kept the ball and Otto Porter's ensuing triple made it a seven-point possession to cut Boston’s lead to two.
Another triple by Curry – once again off of simple pick-and-roll action designed to attack Horford on the perimeter – gave the Warriors the lead, erasing what had been an 18-point Celtics advantage. Curry finished the quarter with 15 points in the period and Thompson 10, but most importantly the Warriors held Boston to 33 per cent shooting in the period, a big improvement from the first half when Boston strafed them for 57 per cent shooting.
Celtics win the possession game
Fans of the Toronto Raptors might remember how this goes: sometimes it’s not how you shoot, it’s how many. Boston dominated the Warriors on the offensive glass (15-6) leading to a 22-11 edge in second-chance points. They were also careful with the ball in terms of turnovers while doing a good job harassing the Warriors into mistakes as they made 16 turnovers to 12 by Boston.
As a result, Boston was able to take 11 more shots than the Warriors, which more than made up for the fact that the Warriors had an edge in three-point shooting, 15-13. The offensive glass seemed to tell a story. With two of Horford, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams always on the floor, the Celtics seemed bigger and stronger and quicker than the Warriors, to say nothing of the size and athleticism edge that Brown, Tatum, and Smart provided at their respective positions on the wing.
The Celtics pressed their advantage most obviously in the fourth quarter as they had an 8-1 edge in turnovers and a 4-0 edge in offensive rebounds as the Celtics won the final quarter 23-11.
The return of Klay
The one firm conclusion that could be drawn from Games 1 and 2 is that the Warriors were going to need someone to step up in support of Curry. Through the first two games it most certainly wasn’t Thompson, who had played that role in the Warriors' previous five Finals appearances. Thompson couldn’t find his way around the Celtics’ forest of long-armed defenders as he was just 10-of-33 from the floor and 4-of-15 from deep in Games 1 and 2.
But Thompson – a career 41 per cent three-point shooter in the post-season – had a plan: watch himself on video.
“That's the beauty of playing in today's age. You can go on YouTube and look up all your great moments,” he said in advance of Game 3. “… I remember being in college, when you go through a shooting slump, the video guys will pull up a great game of when everything seemed in unison, your body was working so well, that ball was just flowing off your fingertips.
“Gosh, probably just YouTube 'Game 6 Klay' because there were some very high-pressurized situations I was in. I ended up shooting the ball well. When you can do it when your back is against the wall, you can do it at any given moment. It's just about keeping that mental strong.”
Thompson showed that he’d put his downtime to good use. He missed his first three looks but eventually got a triple to go down late in the first quarter and then scored 10 points in the first seven minutes of the second quarter to keep the Warriors in touch as the Celtics tried to pull away.
“For me it's about keeping that same mindset of shooters shoot,” he said. “I'd rather go down swinging than being gun shy.”
He finished with 25 points and was 5-of-13 from deep.