With Game 1 of one of the most anticipated NBA Finals match-ups in years in the books, it’s clear who the winner of this series is going to be: basketball fans.
Boston used a 17-0 run in the fourth to go up by 14 with two minutes to play, while Golden State’s attack went cold at the worst possible time with the Splash Brothers et al. going without a bucket for five minutes in the fourth.
The Celtics had no such problem, shooting 9-of-12 from deep in the final period alone and silencing the Chase Center crowd with a 40-16 stomping in the last 12 minutes.
But even as the drama drained out of what was a competitive, well-played game, it’s easy to imagine the NBA’s 75th Anniversary season being wrapped up with a classic Finals. But that will require the Warriors to bounce back emphatically in Game 2, scheduled for Sunday.
“We’ve always embraced challenges, it’s not different, we’ll embrace this one,” said Draymond Green after the game. “It’s not a hit to the confidence at all.”
Some additional takeaways:
The Celtics weren’t just the best defensive team in the NBA in the second half of the season, they were the best by a mile, out-distancing the second-place Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 points per 100 possessions. But the Warriors are a different beast.
Not only is there Stephen Curry’s constant motion off the ball and the pressure he can put on a defence – quite literally – once he crosses centre a constant threat, the rest of the Warriors can either shoot, pass or both, too.
Curry exploded in the first quarter, but even when he sat early in the second, the Warriors didn’t miss a beat. Blink once and there was Otto Porter – a career 40-per-cent three-point shooter – working his way open for a triple, one of four he made off the bench on five attempts. Blink again, and there was Porter setting a down screen for Klay Thompson, a career 41.7 per cent three-point shooter, who drifted up the floor from the corner and stepped into a wide-open look.
That put the Warriors up 10 early in the second quarter, but the Celtics didn’t arrive in San Francisco to get knocked out early. Slowly they began to adjust to the Warriors' swirling style, got some stops and pulled themselves off the ropes. They responded with a 10-0 run to tie the game and held Curry off the score sheet in the second quarter on their way to a 56-54 halftime lead.
Boston’s message was clear: they didn’t come all this way – and survive Game 7s against the Milwaukee Bucks and the Miami Heat – to fold.
Warriors contain the two Jays – almost
But the Warriors have the ability to keep the pressure on teams, both offensively and with their own defensive acumen – they were the NBA’s second-ranked defence in the regular season.
The Warriors signalled their intention by keeping the Celtics duo of elite wings – Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – under wraps. Together they came into the Finals averaging 49.9 points a game, but the Warriors' switch-heavy scheme and their ability to keep showing the Celtics wings a long list of long, agile defenders that often started with Wiggins and was always backstopped by Draymond Green caused Boston problems.
At one point, Tatum went 20 minutes of game action without a field goal. By the time the fourth quarter started, Tatum and Brown were shooting just 9-of-31 from the floor. Not that it was all the Warriors doing.
Tatum in particular struggled, watching a number of open looks from three hit the rim hard and bounce the wrong way (he finished 3-of-17 from the floor and 1-of-5 from deep). But he did chip in 13 assists as he was quick to move the ball out of double teams and traps and some of the Celtics' secondary scorers – Derrick White and Al Horford especially – benefitted from the open looks. Combined, White and Horford went 11-of-16 from three. Marcus Smart was 4-of-7.
“15-of-23 from three, from those three guys? We’ll be fine,” said Green afterwards.
Meanwhile Brown started turning it on early the fourth quarter as he helped engineer a 14-3 run with a contested three, penetration leading to a lob for Robert Williams and another basket off a steal. His three from the corner cut the Warriors' lead to just two after Golden State had led by as many as 15 with just two minutes left in the third period. It was all part of a blistering start to the fourth quarter where Boston hit seven straight threes and 11 of their first 14 field goal attempts that put Boston up by six with four minutes to play.
The Warriors couldn’t recover.
Wiggins matches his father
Andrew Wiggins had played in a total of five playoff games in his first seven NBA seasons and has already more than tripled that total in the Warriors' run so far. The former No. 1 overall pick from Thornhill, Ont., isn’t the most effusive character, but the prospect of joining his father, Mitch Wiggins (who faced the Celtics in the 1986 Finals with the Houston Rockets) with an NBA Finals on his resume had him gushing, relatively.
“I'll be nervous for sure,” he said. “[But] I'm soaking it all in. I'm just ready to play for real. You know, it's something that you dream of as a kid. I've watched it all my years in the NBA but never got a chance to be a part of it. Now that I'm a part of it, I'm excited and embracing it.”
Wiggins looked far from out of place in his first Finals game, picking up where he left off in the Western Conference Finals with some swarming defence – in this case as the primary defender on Brown – while pitching in some key buckets on his way to a 20-point night.
There were a few awkward moments – losing his handle in heavy traffic late in the second quarter and losing his balance while looking to get into his shot on a couple of occasions in the first quarter. But he showed his quality too.
He scored his first Finals basket by flying through the air, absorbing contact and finishing through in spectacular fashion, and then another when he attacked the paint late in the shot clock, spun and finished over a helpless White — the kind of score that only high-end scorers can create. It's proof of how much of a luxury it is for the Warriors to have such a talented fourth option.
Wiggins kept rolling in the second half and his 12-point third quarter was a big reason why the Warriors were able to go up 12 to start the fourth. But like the rest of the Warriors, he was scoreless in six minutes in the fourth, mirroring the team as a whole.
Experience was not a factor, apparently
One of the important questions before the ball went up was: What impact will the relative levels of experience the two teams are bringing to the Finals have? The Warriors’ core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were tipping off their sixth Finals together. As a team, the Warriors had 123 Finals games of experience to draw on before Game 1, the Celtics? Zero.
No one wanted to overstate it – the Celtics' young trio of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have been to three Eastern Conference Finals together – but getting acclimatized to the big stage can take a minute.
“There are obviously nerves and adrenaline and anxiety and nerves – like everything in terms of the emotions of playing at this stage,” said Curry before Game 1 of his first Finals experience. “That first game is sometimes all over the place because of that …”
But the Celtics weren’t buying it.
“I'd say overrated in general,” said Celtics head coach Ime Udoka when asked about the importance of Finals experience. “Our young guys have had a lot of success so far, getting to the Eastern Conference Finals multiple times. So for us, try to simplify it, not overcomplicate it. Business as usual, basketball as usual. The things we did to be successful coming here, we'll try to do more of the same.”
Still, the lights are bright when they come on. Perhaps those early jitters were a factor in some early defensive breakdowns, such as when Smart – the NBA’s defensive player of the year – got confused in transition and left Curry wide-open for a triple. Or when Curry beat Smart back door for a lay-up. Or when Smart got stuck behind a Kevon Looney screen and Curry got free for another three – all in the space of a few minutes in the first quarter. He ended up with a Finals record six triples on eight attempts in the game’s first 12 minutes, on his way to 21 first-quarter points, a Finals high for him in a single quarter.
Curry ended up with 34 points and five assists for the game. It was impressive, and fun, but clearly not enough. Wiggins (20) and Thompson (15) were the only other Warriors starters to hit double figures while the Celtics had five different players hit multiple threes as they shot 21-of-41 from deep as a team.