Much like a cookie, it seemed the Golden State Warrior dynasty was about to crumble. Instead, the Celtics grew stale… setting up a captivating week of basketball that will be delicious for NBA fans the world over.
Late Boston major Tom Menino delivered that famous cookie line about the New York Yankees some 18 years ago. It was all I could think of in the lead-up to Game 4 of the NBA Finals at TD Garden last Friday. The Warriors seemed to be on their last legs: both physically exhausted in Boston’s big Game 3 win and mentally spent with far too much attention on fan chants and hospitality.
In short, they were crumbling.
The final five minutes of Friday’s Game 4 reset Golden State’s foundation and put the Celtics on unsure footing. In allowing a 17-3 run to close out a 107-97 lose that even the best-of-seven series at two games each, Boston crumbled in front of a stunned, sold out crowd.
That’s the essence of the entire playoff run for the Celtics. Whenever they’re expected to zig, they zag. Whenever they’re expected to blow doors and cruise (see Game 6 vs. Miami, Game 4 vs. Golden State), they give momentum back. Whenever they’re written off as burnt toast (see Games 6-7 vs. Milwaukee, Game 7 vs. Miami), they get off the mat and answer the ball.
Wild swings of momentum happening on basketball’s biggest stage are equal parts frustrating and thrilling. It’s made for a wildly entertaining series, but it drives fans bonkers. Why can’t the Celtics simply carry momentum from game to game and bury Golden State? Why do they lose the plot at random and give away games that otherwise appear in hand?
“We’re not doing this (stuff) on purpose. I promise you that,” star forward Jayson Tatum said Friday night.
So what happens now? Instead of a coronation, the Celtics are in a dog fight… a best-of-three series, with two of the games played in California, for the NBA championship. Anyone in their right mind would’ve taken that scenario as gold when Boston was two games under .500 on January 8.
“Yeah, it was a tough loss, and we understand that, and I think we’ve been here before. This is third time in a row I feel like we’ve been here,” Tatum said. “So we know what it takes.”
They’ve also been remarkably good at leaving the past in the past, refusing to let blowing one game snowball into blowing another. So even though it appears the Celtics are coming unraveled after Friday’s loss, that’s a mirage. Just as the appearance of Golden State crumbling after one game was a mirage.
The only predictable thing about the ’22 Finals is that whatever narrative has one team turtling after one game won’t carry over to the next. Both clubs are far too mentally tough for that. Need more evidence?
Boston is 7-0 after a loss in the 2022 playoffs, an indicator that they’ll bounce back in Monday’s Game 5. They’re 8-3 on the road and already took Game 1 on Golden State’s home floor, another plus for Monday ; they’re also 3-0 in elimination games with two of those played on the road.
“We need to be more focused. Attention to detail. There’s no room for error. No room for doubt,” all-star Jaylen Brown said before Sunday’s practice. “I think focus is something that, for us, has differed from game to game. It’s almost human nature when our backs are against the wall a little bit, we play with more focus and intensity and determination.”
Trouble is, this is who Golden State is, too. The Warriors are 6-0 after their own losses in these playoffs. Unlike the Celtics, they’ve not faced elimination yet… but like the Green, they’ve yet to lose back-to-back games. Warriors coach Steve Kerr likened it to Boston’s haywire Eastern Conference Finals series with Miami.
“It was almost like automatic, whichever team lost, came back and punched the other team in the mouth the next game, and it kept going back and forth,” Kerr said. “I just think that, especially as you get deeper in the playoffs, teams are so evenly matched, and the games are physical and intense.”
The Celtics haven’t lost three games in a row since Christmas… which means its a virtual certainly that Golden State won’t be winning the championship in six games. It seems equally unlikely that Boston will win the next two … more or less making it a lock the championship will be decided in Game 7 on Father’s Day.
Boston needs more aggression from Tatum. It needs Brown to play with the ferocity whether he has two fouls or not (his shooting splits after picking up his second foul in this series are horrifying). It needs Robert Williams to remain healthy and effective, it needs occasional shot making from role players and it needs to keep its wits when the Warriors are making shots.
“It’s 2-2. Still nothing to hang your head about. A lot of great basketball still in front of us… I still think we are in a great spot,” Brown said. “I’m excited to see how we responded over the next couple of days. I mean, it’s exciting. It’s the biggest stage in the world.”
Will the next seven days reveal the crumbling of one basketball dynasty while the next one rises? Time will tell… but the only thing that feels certain is that wherever the series appears headed after Monday’s Game 5, it won’t go there. These Celtics have never taken the easy route and with the entire world watching they’re not about to start now.
“It’s the Finals. The art of competition. It wasn’t easy,” Tatum said. “I think that’s kind of the beauty of it, that it’s not going to be easy. It shouldn’t be. We know we both want it and we got to go take it.”
You can contact Matt Williams at MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN