The Golden State Warriors entered the series opener with 123 combined games of NBA Finals experience to the Boston Celtics' zero and left with the worst fourth-quarter scoring disparity in this stage's history.
In between, the Celtics looked lost, staggering from a vintage Stephen Curry heat check in the opening quarter and a classic Golden State landslide in the third, only to find themselves on a 17-0 run that swung Game 1, home-court advantage and potentially the tenor of this championship series in a 120-108 win.
"We've been counted out all year. Rightfully so," Celtics guard Marcus Smart said, following a comeback victory that resembled his team's remarkable turnaround from a midseason afterthought. "We've had moments, but we continue to fight. That's who we are. Over the last couple months, that's our identity."
The revamped Warriors looked like the Warriors of old. Less than three minutes into their night, Curry found Klay Thompson for a transition 3-pointer and didn't bother to watch it go in. The two-time MVP's errant last-second heave broke a streak of seven straight makes, including a record six 3-pointers, in a personal 21-point first quarter. Chase Center was rocking, as if it was Oracle Arena hosting LeBron James in 2015.
If ever there was an opportunity to fold following consecutive seven-game series and 4,500 miles logged in the previous three days, it was under the pressure of a three-time champion's initial flex exceeding its hype.
Where so many have wilted, the Celtics stared down Curry as he plugged into the crowd, electrifying the Bay Area once more, and they let the shock wear off. Between Curry's fifth and sixth 3-pointers, a Derrick White triple and a Jayson Tatum three-point play kept Boston within 32-28 at the end of the first quarter.
You still couldn't help but wonder if first-year Celtics head coach Ime Udoka was already searching for answers to start the second quarter, when he rolled out Tatum, Payton Pritchard, Grant Williams, White and Daniel Theis, who previously played only 15 unproductive playoff minutes together. The Warriors extended their lead to 10, targeting Boston reserves who rarely saw the court in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics called a timeout, reinserted a starting lineup that dominated opponents by 24.6 points per 100 possessions throughout the regular season and countered with the best punch in their repertoire. The length and quickness of Boston's top-rated defense extinguished Golden State's flammable offense. Over the final 8:37 of the second quarter, the Celtics closed on a 19-7 run to enter halftime with a 56-54 lead.
The crowd was not silenced, nor were the Warriors, but it was fair warning not to toy with this foe.
"A lot of guys have played a lot of big basketball throughout their careers," said White, who finished with 21 points. "May not be the Finals, but the thing about this group is we love to hoop, so we're ready to go."
Golden State threw another haymaker, the sort of third-quarter barrage that had buried every Western Conference playoff opponent Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green faced for eight years. The ball found anyone open, and everyone delivered, outscoring the Celtics 38-24 in the third. Andrew Wiggins' 12 points doubled the output of Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who were 1 for 10 in the quarter and 9 for 31 through three.
Golden State even dusted off Andre Iguodala to drill his customary dagger at the end of the third. His 3-pointer gave the Warriors a 92-78 lead, and probability models pegged them for a 95% chance to win.
Only, Brown led a counterattack, scoring or assisting Boston's first 14 points of the fourth quarter to draw within 97-94 before the Warriors knew what hit them. After Curry finger rolled his final points of the night, White and Al Horford's four straight 3-pointers ignited a 17-0 run. Celtics not named Tatum made their first 11 shots of the final quarter, including seven 3-pointers, to steal a 109-103 lead inside of five minutes.
Back-to-back 3-pointers from Smart delivered the knockout. As Boston's lead ballooned to 120-105, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr emptied his bench, stunned by a 41-16 bludgeoning that marked the most lopsided final frame ever in the Finals. Golden State now must get off the mat before Sunday's encore.
"Obviously, you go into Game 2 with more of a sense of desperation," Kerr said.
"We pretty much dominated the game for the first 41, 42 minutes, so we'll be fine," added Green, forgetting his team trailed at halftime and convincing himself his team has the upper hand in a series he trails 1-0.
When the clock struck zeroes, the better-rested and more experienced Warriors had shot 42% on 45 3-point attempts. Curry finished with 34 points, everyone but Jordan Poole in his supporting cast found level ground, and the hosts still could not clear a path to victory. They threw some of their best punches and lost.
The Celtics, meanwhile, pulled one of theirs, as Tatum made just three of his 17 shots. (The first team All-NBA forward did distribute a career-high 13 assists.) Horford, White and Smart will not make 15 of their 23 3-point attempts again, even if most were open, but Boston can bank on Tatum being better. If the defense can perform closer to the version that held Curry to 13 points on 16 shots over the final three quarters than the one that inexplicably played drop coverage on him in the first, Golden State has cause for concern.
As if losing for the first time in 10 home games to a team that is now 8-2 on the road isn't alarming already.
"Knowing we can play so much better, that's the main thing," Udoka said, detailing defensive mistakes. "Didn't have a great three quarters and kept ourselves in the game, then locked down when we needed to."
If institutional knowledge was to be a difference-maker in this series, these Warriors failed their first test, while the Celtics learned an essential lesson: What they do works, no matter who or where the opponent.
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