BOSTON — With four minutes remaining in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Marcus Smart emerged with an offensive rebound from a six-player scrum that left Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry hobbled. Draymond Green shoved the Boston Celtics guard, earning his sixth personal foul. Before taking his seat on Golden State's bench, Green gave referee Courtney Kirkland an earful, only this time nobody was listening.
Green was the aggressor in Game 2, and his Warriors embodied their vocal leader's brash behavior in a blowout victory. Afterward, he reveled in the "differential treatment" he said he has earned from officials for his ability to walk the line between physical basketball and ejection-worthy antics. The veteran bullied the younger Celtics, even resting his feet atop Jaylen Brown's head, trusting his comfort zone was not theirs.
Only, these Celtics fought back. They always do. Wednesday's counterpunch landed with a 116-100 win and a 2-1 series lead that leaves the Warriors two more blows from suffering a championship knockout.
"Game 2, they brought the heat to us," Smart said after the victory. "For us, that left a bad taste in our mouth because what we hang our hat on is effort on the defensive end and being a physical team. It definitely woke us up a bit. We just wanted to come out, and if we were going to come out here and play, the last thing, when we left that court, we didn't want to say we weren't physical enough. It worked for us."
Following his team's staggering Game 2 loss, Boston coach Ime Udoka encouraged his charges to respond to Golden State's force, one way or another. "Block it out or meet physicality with physicality," he asserted.
Turns out they chose both.
Midway through the first quarter of Game 3, Brown waved off a screen from Derrick White and drove right at Green, the former Defensive Player of the Year, muscling the ball into the basket for an 18-9 advantage. A minute later, he burst past Green from the right arc for a sweeping lefty layup that pushed the lead to 13.
"That's how I play," said Brown. "I feel like I can get by any defender that's in front of me."
Two minutes into the second quarter, Grant Williams, Green's preferred Game 2 punching bag, leveled the Warriors forward on a screen he never saw coming. Whistled for a foul, he bumped Green during the dead ball and met him face-to-face in a heated exchange that ended when officials separated the heavyweights.
By the end of the first half, Green was on his heels. He threw a misguided pass to Boston's Al Horford and rushed to defend Jayson Tatum in transition, only to watch from below as Brown flushed another dunk. By night's end, Green had logged four rebounds, three assists, two points and one bruised ego in 35 minutes.
"I was soft," he conceded.
Green was not the only Warrior the Celtics abused. Smart and Horford worked Curry in the post. Boston hunted Jordan Poole, Nemanja Bjelica and any weak link. The Celtics even ran a layup line at Andrew Wiggins, whose defense has been lauded in these playoffs. Five different Celtics grabbed multiple offensive rebounds. They doubled Golden State on points in the paint, 52-26, and on second-chance points, 22-11.
"We find matchups we think are favorable, we'll attack those," said Udoka. "[Curry] got some fouls early, so we knew he wouldn't be as aggressive. You don't want these guys to rest on that end of the court. We did it with [Kevin] Durant and [Giannis] Antetokounmpo. Even the good defenders, you don't want to give them one end of the court off. ... Putting them in action and not letting them off the hook is part of the plan."
Roles were reversed from Games 2 to 3. Whereas the Celtics were miffed about a light whistle against Green on Sunday, the Warriors took umbrage with the TD Garden crowd's "F*** you, Draymond" chants on Wednesday, as if they had never heard such language before. As if indelicacy was not Green's trademark.
"Dropping F-bombs with children in the crowd," Klay Thompson said. "Real classy. Good job, Boston."
"Classy," added Warriors coach Steve Kerr. "Very classy."
This series lost its class in Game 2. It's a fight to the finish now, and Boston won Round 3.
"It's a matter of playing through pain," said Celtics center Robert Williams III, 10 weeks from knee surgery.
"We've got a chance to do something special," added Smart. "There's no guarantees we'll be back here."
Golden State should have seen Boston's resiliency in the scouting report. The Celtics started the regular season with an 18-21 record and finished on a 33-10 tear, owners of the league's best defense. When Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks took a 3-2 lead in Boston during the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics won two straight to eliminate the defending champions. And when Jimmy Butler's top-seeded Miami Heat forced a Game 7 in the conference finals, the Celtics survived a wild Game 7 on the road.
"I don't think at this point there's any anxiety from the players," said Udoka, whose task now is maintaining his team's intensity on high in Game 4. "It is what it is. We've been battle-tested throughout the playoffs."
Wednesday was resiliency in short order. The Warriors slashed an 18-point lead to 56-49 on an 11-0 run over 96 seconds, and the Celtics shoved back for five straight of their own. Golden State scored seven points on a single possession split into two by Horford's flagrant foul. Another Curry 3-pointer gave his team its first lead since the opening seconds, and another third quarter was rolling Golden State's way.
Except, Smart's 3-point answer returned the lead to Boston for good on the next possession. The Celtics emerged from Golden State's 33-point third quarter with a four-point lead they extended to 16 by game's end. For every Warriors jab, the Celtics landed a combination to the body and the head. We should know the extent of Curry's foot injury on Thursday, but the results of Golden State's film study are important, too.
Bullying worked once, but Udoka's Celtics will not be "punked." They are now 7-0 following a playoff loss. If they are to fall, they will go down swinging. Land two more, though, and a new champion is crowned.
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