BOSTON — With eight minutes remaining in a tied Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Golden State Warriors forward Nemanja Bjelica threw an inbounds pass directly to Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart, and two-time league MVP Stephen Curry slumped his shoulders, as if to wonder what else he had to do to keep his team afloat against a younger, more athletic opponent that had been superior to that point in the series.
Curry lobbed his next pass to Boston's Jaylen Brown, and the Celtics turned consecutive Golden State turnovers into a 91-86 advantage. A commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven set and three chances to win a championship — including one at home — awaited on the other side of the 7:32 left on the clock.
Nobody understood better the odds against overcoming that deficit than these Warriors, who are the only team of 36 in the NBA's 75 seasons ever to blow a 3-1 series lead in the Finals. So, they took Game 4 by sheer force of will, outscoring the Celtics 14-3 over the next six minutes to win 107-97 and even the series.
That's one way to look at it. The other? Boston blew a golden opportunity to slay the three-time champions.
The Celtics spent much of their postgame news conferences rightfully crediting Curry, who joined Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only 34-year-olds to eclipse 40 points in a Finals game. He was masterful, amassing 43 points (14-26 FG, 7-14 3P, 8-9 FT), along with 10 rebounds and four assists, over 41 minutes.
"A lot of credit to him," said Boston's Al Horford, whose 3-pointer with 1:32 left mercifully ended a 10-0 bloodletting run. "He was great tonight. I think you have to give him his credit when credit is due. Just really tough and made plays for their team and put them in a position to win the game. Got to give him credit."
"Give credit to him," Brown said. "He's one of the best players in the world."
"You’ve got to give them credit," said Celtics star Jayson Tatum, "they played well."
"Credit to them," Boston coach Ime Udoka said. "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 have won today and be up 3-1? That would have been best-case scenario," said Tatum, whose 2-for-9 shooting in the second half left him 34% from the field for the series. "But it's the Finals. The art of competition. They came here feeling like they had to win. It wasn't easy. That's the beauty of it. It's not going to be easy. It shouldn't be. We know we both want it, and we've got to go take it."
His team leading by five, with both the ball and the series in his palms, Tatum missed an isolation 23-footer at the end of the shot clock, the first of nine errant Celtics attempts on their next 10 possessions, spanning half the fourth quarter. Smart's 3-pointer to beat another 24-second clock on a broken play was Boston's sole source of offense in that span. That gave the hosts a 94-90 lead with 5:18 remaining.
As the Celtics missed five straight 3-point attempts, the Warriors continued to outwork them. Andrew Wiggins grabbed an offensive rebound for a layup between two onlookers. Klay Thompson caught Boston lost in transition for a go-ahead 3-pointer. Granted, no amount of effort could have stopped Curry from scoring the next five points on a brilliant 15-foot floater and a closely contested 3-pointer for a 100-94 lead.
Horford's answer was a tourniquet too late. Another offensive rebound and an uncontested Kevon Looney layup preceded another brutal Boston possession, and Curry weaved throughout the entire Celtics defense for the first two of his five unanswered free throws over the final 48 seconds. It was a 17-3 blitz, or collapse, over the final five minutes, depending on how you view a 3-1 lead disappearing into a best-of-three series.
"It's kind of been us this whole playoff run," Horford said of his team blending inconsistency with resiliency.
The Finals are far from over. This is hardly the first time in the playoffs these young Celtics have had their heart stopped, only to resuscitate it twice before. They blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead at home to fall behind the Milwaukee Bucks 3-2 in the Eastern Conferences semifinals, before winning their next two in the face of elimination. The Miami Heat closed Game 6 of the conference finals in Boston on a 17-6 run to extend the series, and the Celtics salvaged Game 7 on the road against another fearless veteran team.
"We don't do this s*** on purpose," Tatum said. "I promise you, we don't."
Boston is now 7-0 following losses in this postseason and will need at least one more at Golden State.
"It could have been an easier road, obviously, if you get the win tonight," Udoka said. "It is what it is. We're 2-2 now. We know we can do it. We've done it before. Keep your head up and let's go get one on the road."
This loss will haunt the Celtics for two days, or until their heart beats again, but on this night Curry, wearing all-black sweats on his way out of the arena, hood pulled over his head, sure looked like the Grim Reaper.
– – – – – – –