For 42 minutes of Game 1, the Warriors and Celtics contested a canonical basketball game. It had ebbs, flows, adjustments, counter-adjustments, and impressive displays of individual and collective skill. The game’s animating dynamic was as clear as it was expected: the Warriors’ movement offense was creating plenty of good shots, and the Celtics’ offense wasn’t acquitting itself all that well on the way to a feel-good Game 1 loss. It made a certain degree of sense. And then, with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, something happened, and the Boston Celtics ripped apart the Warriors with a violent outburst of offense that stunned every person in the building and secured them a 1-0 series lead on the road in the most shocking way possible.
We should, at some point, dig into the strategic and tactical decisions that defined Game 1, though really, what decided the game had nothing to do with scheme, merely an unholy display of shotmaking. The Warriors were nursing a four-point lead with 6:22 left, when Derrick White hit a contested three late in the shot clock. White, whose inability to make or even take three-pointers has been an issue for the Celtics throughout most of the postseason, of course immediately hit another three on the next play. At this point, Al Horford took over, going on a solo 8-0 run that began with him nailing a three with Klay Thompson right in his grill and ended with him stepping into a baseline jumper with plenty of time left on the shot clock like he was Kevin Durant or some shit. Marcus Smart then hit two tough threes in a row, and since all of this happened while the Warriors’ offense sputtered to a halt, the Celtics flipped what had been a 14-point third quarter deficit into a blowout win. The damage was a 17-0 run, administered by Boston’s three least talented active offensive players. Steph Curry had to trot to the bench to make way for the garbage-time lineup with one minute left, looking as dazed as I’ve ever seen him.
Here are some stats to underscore how nutty this fourth quarter was: the Celtics won the competitive portion of the fourth quarter 40-13, and even a garbage-time Nemanja Bjelica three couldn’t keep the Warriors from ceding the largest margin of victory in any quarter in the history of the NBA Finals; the Celtics also became the first team to ever win a Finals game by double digits after trailing by double digits heading into the fourth quarter; Al Horford’s six threes are both the most in his career in any game (impressive!) and the most for any player in their Finals debut (sure!); the Celtics did all of this despite a 3-for-17 shooting night from Jayson Tatum. None of this makes any sense, and as much as any process-driven basketball thinker would point to all the interlocking fringe outcomes that had to align for this type of comeback to happen, the beauty of a seven-game Finals is that a single bizarre outcome like this can swing the title.
Before they exploded, Boston had wobbled back and forth between overtaxed by the effort of dealing with Steph Curry’s movement and in control through sheer force of physicality. Golden State began the game the way Boston ended it, only that was to be somewhat expected, as Curry scored a quick 21 on six threes. Curry’s numbers have been stellar on the way to the Finals, though there has appeared to be some strange tic in his game. He’s been missing a concerning number of free throws, his shooting touch appeared to abandon him in the Memphis series, and aside from a banger off the bench against Denver, he hadn’t had one of those truly incendiary Steph Curry games, where his shot appears to be drawn to the hoop as if it was a black hole. He reached that level in the first quarter against Boston, briefly justifying the line of thinking that Boston’s switch-heavy defense and cadre of long defenders meant little against someone who could pull it in mere inches of space.
Boston shifted their focus in the second quarter and snuffed Curry out, taking a narrow lead into halftime. Their physicality appeared to wear on the Warriors, as Draymond Green floundered when the driving and passing lanes he’d exploited for 14 Western Conference games were suddenly clogged up. The Warriors pressed their edge on the offensive glass, grabbing 12 of their own misses, though Robert Williams’s shotblocking abilities nullified many of the easy buckets they probably expected to get when they did manage to get to the rim. The Warriors made a clear effort to leap out in transition, and after finding plenty of joy and open looks in the first three quarters, Boston abandoned their own backboard to keep Golden State from running. Williams’s surprising mobility, coupled with a concerted effort to shut down driving lanes, meant that the Warriors were kept away from the cup for most of the fourth quarter. No matter; all they had to do was hit a shot. They failed to do so, going completely dry from the moment White hit his first three until Thompson finally got a meaningless layup in the final minute of the game. Some of that is shotmaking variance, though Steve Kerr’s team didn’t just lose to Ime Udoka’s because of the luck differential, they got gradually put into a tighter and tighter box until there wasn’t room to do anything but squirm.
The Celtics will probably not go on a 17-0 run again in any quarter of this series, though they might not need to. They experienced the shock and awe of the full-strength Warriors for the first time this season, buckled a bit in the first and third quarters under the strain of Curry’s pressure, then imposed their will on the game. Surely Tatum will not miss 14 of 17 shots again, and surely the Warriors will figure out a better place to stick Jordan Poole (ideally next to Juan Toscano-Anderson on the bench). Probably Draymond Green will not get dogged this bad by Al damn Horford. But it sometimes only takes one logic-defying game to secure a championship, and the Celtics just punched math in the face.