The Celtics should not have won Game 1 of the Finals. Let us count the reasons Golden State should have emerged victorious at home Thursday night:
- Stephen Curry opened the game with flames bursting out of his arms. He made six 3-pointers in the first quarter—a Finals record for any quarter—en route to a game-high 34 points.
- Jayson Tatum, on the other hand, was terrible offensively, going 3-for-17 in the least accurate shooting performance of his playoff career.
- Golden State won the possession battle, beating Boston in second-chance points (26 to 15) and points off turnovers (21 to 10).
- In general, the Warriors are a difficult team to face in a Game 1, given that they play such a heterodox offensive style compared to the rest of the modern NBA, a style that’s predicated on egalitarian motion rather than endless picks for a single heliocentric star. Under Steve Kerr, the Warriors were 21-2 in Game 1s before Thursday, losing only to Oklahoma City in 2016 and Toronto on the road in 2019.
- And the Warriors also tend to close the deal when given the opportunity to run up the score against an overmatched opponent. Under Kerr, the Warriors had been 42-2 in playoff games when holding a double-digit lead entering the fourth, and they were up 12 after three quarters in Game 1, right on schedule.
And yet, against those towering odds, the Celtics stole Game 1, 120-108. They didn’t just eke out a surprising win in the final seconds, either; this game, which Golden State controlled for so long, was effectively over with three minutes left to play. On the strength of a 40-16 closing run—the largest differential in a fourth quarter in Finals history—the Celtics stunned the Chase Center crowd, wrested command of their first Finals in a dozen years, and proved on the biggest stage that they can play the foil to Curry, Kerr, and the rest of the dynastic Warriors.
So how in the basketball-loving world did Boston pull off this comeback? There’s a short answer and a long answer, and they both involve shooting. The former is that the Celtics ended the night 21-for-41 on 3-pointers—and in an increasingly make-or-miss league, canning more than half of their 3-point attempts is a mighty fine place to start. In fact, in this postseason, teams are now 9-0 when making at least 50 percent of their 3-point tries, with an average margin of victory of 17 points. In a larger sample in the regular season, those teams won 89 percent of their games.
The longer answer is that even as Tatum played the worst offensive game of his playoff career, the Celtics’ role players more than compensated for his misfires. The two main heroes were Al Horford and Derrick White. Horford made the most of his first Finals game after 15 years in the league, scoring a team-high 26 points on 9-for-12 shooting, including a career-high six made 3s. And White, a hesitant shooter for so much of his uneven postseason run, looked as comfortable as Curry letting it fly on Thursday night, sinking five triples en route to 21 points and a game-high plus-25 plus-minus.
A Tatum tour de force would have been a perfectly justifiable way for Boston to poach Game 1 on the road. An All-NBA first team selection this year, he demonstrated his bona fides earlier this postseason against Brooklyn in Game 3 and Milwaukee in Game 6.
But for the Celtics’ fourth-quarter outburst to be sparked by Horford, a big man who spent a portion of his media day interview on the eve of the Finals talking about his evolution as a 3-point shooter, who’d never made so many in a game in his life? And White, whom opposing teams begged to take 3s all playoffs long? White’s fortunes swung so quickly that at one point in the fourth quarter, he sank a 3 in Curry’s face to tie the score, as if to show the best shooter in league history that he could match him shot for shot.
Nobody could have predicted those particular turns of fate, not least the Warriors, who lost all momentum once Horford and White caught fire.
Horford and White weren’t alone. Jaylen Brown finished with 24 points after a slow start, including 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting in the final frame. Payton Pritchard made a pair of triples and played a key role with Marcus Smart on the bench for much of Boston’s late push. Smart himself was an efficient scorer (18 points on 11 shots) while taking the Curry assignment on defense.
Through three quarters of Game 1, just about everything that happened on the Chase Center court was easily explainable. The narrative was taking shape, too: The Celtics would drop the opener, but would be ready with adjustments for the next game after getting their Finals feet wet.
But now, Boston must brim with confidence entering Sunday’s Game 2, stealing home-court advantage early despite so many factors pointing against them in Game 1. The Celtics entered the Finals tip-off with less rest, then saw their best player struggle throughout—and yet they withstood the Warriors’ surging star and home crowd, they countered with unprecedented fourth-quarter force, and now they have the Warriors, theoretically the veterans in these Finals, in unfamiliar territory.