BOSTON — Eight minutes from time in a tied Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Golden State Warriors forward Nemanja Bjelica threw an inbounds pass straight at Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart and two-time league MVP Stephen Curry hunched his shoulders as if wondering what else he had to do to keep his team afloat against a younger, more athletic opponent who was dominating the series up to that point.
Curry played his next pass to Boston’s Jaylen Brown, and the Celtics turned back-to-back Golden State turnovers into a 91-86 advantage. A commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven set and three chances for the league title – including one at home – waited on the other side of the remaining 7:32 on the clock.
Nobody understood the odds of overcoming that deficit better than these Warriors, who are the only 36-man team in the NBA’s 75 seasons to ever gamble away a 3-1 lead in the series. So they won Game 4 through sheer willpower, beating the Celtics 14-3 over the next six minutes to go 107-97 and win the series.
That’s one way of looking at it. The other? Boston missed a golden opportunity to defeat the three-time champion.
The Celtics spent much of their post-game press conferences giving due credit to Curry, who eclipsed Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only 34-year-old to score 40 points in a Finals game. He was masterful, amassing 43 points (14-26 FG, 7-14 3P, 8-9 FT) in 41 minutes, along with 10 rebounds and four assists.
“A lot of credit for him,” said Boston’s Al Horford, whose 1:32 3-point run mercifully ended a 10-0 vein run. “He was great tonight. I think he has to be given credit when honor is due. Just very tough and made games for their team and put them in a position to win the game. I have to give him credit.”
“Believe him honor,” Brown said. “He’s one of the best players in the world.”
“You have to give them credit,” said Celtics star Jayson Tatum, “they played well.”
“Thanks to them,” said Boston coach Ime Udoka. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
But everyone in the room understood the magnitude of the opening they had just given Golden State.
“Would we have liked to win today and lead 3-1? That would have been the best-case scenario,” said Tatum, who had left 34% of the field for the series with his 2-for-9 second-half shooting . “But it’s the final. The art of competition. They came here feeling like they had to win. It wasn’t easy. That’s the beauty of it. It won’t be easy. It shouldn’t be. We both want to know each other it, and we must take it.”
With his team leading by five, both the ball and the series in his hands, Tatum missed an isolated 23-foot shot at the end of the shot clock, the first of nine failed Celtics attempts at their next 10 possessions stretching over the half of the fourth quarter extended . Smart’s 3-pointer to beat another 24-second clock on a broken game was Boston’s only source of attack in that span. The hosts took the lead 94:90 with 5:18 remaining.
With the Celtics missing five straight 3-point attempts, the Warriors continued to surpass them. Andrew Wiggins grabbed an offensive rebound for a layup between two spectators. Klay Thompson caught Boston losing in transition for a go-ahead 3-pointer. Granted, no effort could have stopped Curry from taking the next five points with a brilliant 15-foot floater and a hard-fought 3-pointer for a 100-94 lead.
Horford’s reply was a tourniquet too late. Another offensive rebound and undisputed layup from Kevon Looney preceded another brutal possession from Boston, and Curry wove the first two of his five unanswered free throws through the entire Celtics defense in the last 48 seconds. In the final five minutes, it was a 17-3 blitz or collapse, depending on how you view a 3-1 lead disappearing in a best-of-three series.
“We kind of were throughout the playoff run,” Horford said of his team mixing inconsistency with resilience.
The final is far from over. This is hardly the first time in the playoffs these young Celtics have had their hearts stop, only to revive them twice before. They gambled away a 14-point lead at home in the fourth quarter and fell 3-2 behind the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conferences semifinals before winning their next two in the face of elimination. The Miami Heat ended Game 6 of the Conference Finals in Boston on a 17-6 run to extend the streak, and the Celtics saved Game 7 away from another fearless veteran team.
“We don’t do this on purpose,” Tatum said. “I promise you, we don’t.”
Boston is now 7-0 after losses this postseason and will need at least one more at the Golden State.
“Of course it could have been easier if you win tonight,” said Udoka. “It is what it is. We’re 2-2 now. We know we can do it. We’ve done it before. Cheer up and let’s get one on the road.”
That loss will haunt the Celtics for two days or until their hearts beat again, but that night Curry, who was walking out of the arena in an all-black tracksuit and hood pulled over his head, really looked like the Grim Reaper.
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Ben Rohrbach is a senior editor at Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach