BOSTON — Once again, the Celtics were beaten by the Golden State Warriors in a third quarter.
And when Stephen Curry’s 3-pointer went through the basket with 3 minutes, 45 seconds remaining in the third quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals Wednesday night, capping a 10-0 run by Golden State and making it 83-82 Warriors, There was a collective groan from the sold-out crowd at TD Garden:
Here we go again.
Only did the Celtics — for the second time in that series — find a way to respond to a Warriors punch to the jaw in the third quarter with their own haymaker in the fourth, limiting Golden State to just 11 points in the fourth quarter as Boston continued , to win 116-100 and put the C’s to a 2-1 lead in the series.
“I felt like our team was really stable in those moments,” said Celtics center Al Horford. “As you know, that could have gone south quickly earlier in the year.
“But we stuck with it and just latched on and didn’t panic and just kept playing.”
As Horford alluded to, Boston wasn’t a team capable of that all season. But since the Celtics finally turned their campaign around in late January, they have proven incredibly resilient. With Wednesday’s Game 3 win, Boston improved to 7-0 in games from a loss in this playoff as the Celtics are yet to lose back-to-back games this postseason.
Since Jan. 23, the Celtics have gone 13-1 in games after losing.
“I think it was like when we turned our season around when we turned that corner,” said Boston forward Jayson Tatum. “Earlier in the season we would have given up leads and lost games like this, whereas now – things are happening, right. They’re a great team. They have great players. They will fire shots. You we will run, but it depends on how you react.
“We didn’t put our heads down or anything. We took a break, regrouped, figured it out and made winning plays. I was definitely proud of the group for that.”
The Celtics had to do that because they again failed to get traction in the third quarter. Golden State has outstripped Boston by 43 points in the previous three third quarters of this series as the Warriors were able to repeatedly tie the Celtics in defensive knots.
That, of course, is driven by Stephen Curry, who finished with 31 points in 37 minutes in 12-for-22 shooting. He also had seven-point possession in the third quarter, hitting a 3 while obviously fouled by Horford, allowing Curry to then hit the free throw, followed by Otto Porter Jr. who knocked down another 3.
A minute later, a Curry 3 brought Golden State up – and Boston back on their heels.
But instead of falling apart, the Celtics responded. They went on an 11-6 run in the final minutes of the third quarter to reclaim the lead heading into the fourth quarter. From there, the Celtics beat Golden State 23-11 and held the Warriors to just one goal in the first three minutes while Boston put their lead back into double digits with a quick 9-2 run.
“It was easy for me to be ready,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “Just keep calm. We’ve been here before. They’re a really good team. They will go for runs, but so will we.
It helped that Boston had Robert Williams III patrolling the color. While Tatum, Smart and Jaylen Brown all had 20+ points, five rebounds and five assists, they became the first trio of teammates to pull off the feat in an NBA Finals game since Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper succeeded for the Los Angeles Lakers against the Celtics in 1984 – it was Williams who was team-best in 25 minutes plus 21 and finished with eight points, ten rebounds, four blocked shots and a mountain of hustle plays.
“He’s a game changer,” Horford said of Williams. “Rob really is a game changer. We’re very fortunate to have a guy like this who influences winning like he does because it’s beyond the numbers for him. It’s just all the things he brings with him when he’s around. I was so impressed with Rob, just his ability to just keep getting better and learning.
“He’s learning. We talk to him, I feel like there’s a lot we can ask of him and he’s always picking it up, figuring it out and it’s better. But his stuff goes beyond the box score, the impact, he has on the game.”
Williams has seen that impact vary from game to game during this playoff as he has been battling problems with his left knee for more than two months. He underwent meniscus surgery in that knee in late March, which eliminated him for the end of the regular season and the start of Boston’s first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets.
He then suffered a fractured bone in the same knee in Boston’s second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, missing the last three games of that series and missing Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. Williams has been questionable in every game since – only to be cleared in the hours leading up to the tip.
“It was tough,” Williams said of the treatment for his knee. “Put it all on. Normally, of course, it hurts more the day after the game, the adrenaline drops. But we did a few different things today, got on the bike a little earlier before the game. I benefited from that.”
It was clear that he was fine. Williams was all over the court, frequently fighting for loose balls, flying around the lane to deny shots and constantly being in the center of the action.
“I talk to Rob all the time just because I know what he’s going through,” Smart said. “He’s injured and even though he’s injured he still wants to get out there and help his team. But at the same time he thinks about his career. Like I just told him, ‘You know your body. You know what you can endure and what you can’t. But just be aware, we have a chance to do something special. There is no guarantee that we will return here. If you can go, we’d better take 20 percent of you than none of you.’
“He understood that and he decided to go out and put on his big boy pants and suck them up and go crazy.”
The Celtics spent the three days between their ugly loss in Game 2 and Game 3 talking about the need to play with more energy and effort. That message was clear from the opening tip, when Boston immediately set the tone with physical play at both ends. Boston won the rebound fight by 16 points, including 15 offensive rebounds, and didn’t allow Golden State to rush things by committing just 12 turnovers — including just one in the fourth quarter.
As a result, Boston is now two wins away from a championship. And after bouncing back from another loss — as well as a body punch from the Warriors during the game itself — the Celtics must now do what they’ve so regularly failed to do in these playoffs: respond like this to a win.
“Another setback from us,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “My message to the group was: ‘We did this after losses; now let’s react properly after a win.'”