Elegant offense or not, this Celtics’ fourth-quarter comeback was memorable
Jun 2, 2022
Kevin ArnovitzESPN Staff Writer
- NBA writer for ESPN.com since 2008
- Former contributor and editor at NPR
SAN FRANCISCO — Like two heavyweights feeling each other out in the opening round of a championship bout, the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics opened the 2022 NBA Finals, with the Celtics striking the first blow with a 120-108 comeback victory.
The Celtics won Game 1 with a scintillating 17-0 run in the fourth quarter, the second-largest spurt in the closing frame of a Finals game over the past 50 seasons.
Thursday night’s NBA Finals Game 1 was less about surprise tactics than it was two elite teams throwing their best stuff at each other and watching what it can and cannot handle. To test the Celtics’ defensive accuracy, the Warriors displayed their elegant offense with constant motion and clever off-ball play. The Celtics practiced their drive-and-kick game, hoping for favorable matchups and open looks against the Warriors’ rotations. Both teams used their defensive switch-heavy strategies, with the Warriors occasionally attempting to cover zone coverage.
With a rousing fourth-quarter comeback, the Celtics overcame a 15-point second-half deficit. Boston unleashed a devastating attack from beyond the arc in a flash. In seven minutes, six 3-pointers were made by the Celtics, many of which were heavily contested. By midway through the fourth, Boston had completely erased a deficit that stood at 12 points to start the quarter. The Warriors were unable to keep up with the Celtics’ pace on the field. In the final tally, the Celtics outscored the Warriors 40-16 in the final frame, shooting 9-for-12 on field goals from deep, the most recorded by any team in the fourth quarter in Finals history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Though the Warriors centered their defensive strategy on first-team All-NBA forward Jayson Tatum, it was teammates Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Derrick White who provided the firepower during the Celtics’ blistering late run. Each topped 20 points on the night — Marcus Smart added 18 of his own, including four 3-pointers — more than compensating for Tatum’s 3-for-17 struggle. Horford’s six 3-pointers were the most in any of his games, regular season or playoffs. This is a remarkable performance. White, a catalyst midseason acquisition that has allowed the Celtics to play small and spread out with great spacing, was a huge help. Brown, who is so opportunistic with the offense’s flow, has never stopped being aggressive. The Celtics may not have the same elegant offense as the Warriors, but they are a formidable offense from long range. Coming into the Finals, Boston had attempted 45.5% of its field goals from 3-point range — only the Dallas Mavericks attempted a higher percentage this postseason. The two most powerful defenses in the NBA couldn’t contain the offensive explosion at Chase Center in half one. As strong as the Celtics have been defensively during the regular season and postseason, they neglected the single most important imperative: Find Stephen Curry early and stay attached.
In search of his first Finals MVP award, Curry drained six 3-pointers in the first quarter. Four of them were uncontested. His 21 points in the opening frame were his most in any quarter in a Finals game, the most by any player in a Finals first quarter, and the fourth most overall in any Finals quarter — only Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas have scored more. Ultimately, the Warriors squandered Curry’s 34-point output.
The Celtics, who reached their first Finals since 2010 on the strength of their defense, demonstrated that they have an offensive bag that can punish the Warriors’ defensive rotation on the right night. The Celtics will have a chance to complete a nine-year rebuild after their legendary Big Three era if they can match just a fraction of their offensive display in Game 1 with their signature defense on three more occasions.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.