The Celtics aren’t as fast as the Warriors. They’re not as experienced or as dynamic in transition. They’d scored 120 points in Game 1 thanks to unsustainably accurate 3-point shooting, but they couldn’t count on beating the Warriors at their own game all series long. That much seemed true in a blowout loss in Game 2, when Boston posted its worst offensive efficiency in any game all season, according to Cleaning the Glass.
But the Celtics have their own strengths: They’re bigger than the Warriors, both on the wings and in the middle. They’re more physical. And in front of a packed TD Garden on Wednesday, they pressed those advantages from the opening tip en route to a 116-100 victory.
Boston survived a furious Golden State comeback, hot shooting from the Warriors’ top scorers, and a relative long-distance slump from its own shooters. But the Celtics were more energetic, more aggressive, and above all, more effective on offense in Game 3. They attacked the Warriors’ interior from the start, in a marked difference from their more passive effort in Game 2. The Celtics scored only 24 points in the paint on 30 shots in Game 2, per NBA.com. But in Game 3, they reached 24 paint points halfway through the second quarter, after just 14 attempts.
Boston finished the game with 52 paint points, exactly twice as many as Golden State. The Celtics’ top three scorers—Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart—all scored 10 apiece in the paint, meaning they outscored the entire Warriors team in that region by themselves.
The Celtics’ role players, namely Al Horford and Derrick White, keyed their Game 1 comeback, but Boston’s stars did the heavy lifting on Wednesday. Brown took the baton early, scoring 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting in the first quarter, and finished the night with 27 points on just 16 shots. Smart added 24 points, seven rebounds, and five assists (as well as five turnovers, several on hilariously terrible passes that led to easy Warriors buckets).
And Tatum found his best offensive balance of the series to date. He slumped in Game 1 but dished out 13 assists, then shot better in Game 2 but tallied only three dimes. In Game 3, however, he found a happy medium between his own scoring and creating for others, and finished with 26 points and a game-high nine assists.
With the Celtics generating so many baskets via drives from the perimeter, it wasn’t clear how much head coach Ime Udoka would turn to his two-big frontcourt featuring Robert Williams III and Horford. White was the game’s first sub, after just 3:15, for Williams, and he entered for the Celtics center again less than three minutes into the third quarter. The Boston offense looked more dynamic, their passes crisper and motion more fluid, with four perimeter players surrounding Horford as the only big.
Yet in the second half, as the Warriors staged another third-quarter comeback and the Splash Brothers caught fire—Steph Curry and Klay Thompson finished the game with 56 combined points and 11 made 3-pointers—Udoka returned to a Twin Towers lineup. The move worked wonders. Williams in particular was the best player in the fourth quarter, when he played 10 minutes until exiting with the game in hand; over the whole game, Time Lord posted four blocks, three steals, and a game-high plus-21 point differential when he was on the court.
On the defensive end, the Horford-Williams combo gave the Celtics the rare but necessary combination of size and mobility to slow—not stop, but slow—the Warriors’ dangerous screening actions for Curry. And on offense, while none of the Celtics’ big men took over in the points column, their passing, screen-setting, and rebounding opened copious opportunities for their teammates. Horford tallied six assists, second-most on the team, and Horford, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams added three offensive boards apiece. Boston scored 22 second-chance points in the game, to Golden State’s 11.
This is part of the fun of a closely matched playoff series: Between every game, the losing team has time to adjust to what failed the previous game. Golden State did the trick between games 1 and 2, and Boston fulfilled its obligation when it arose. Now the Warriors have been tagged once more, with just one off day to figure out how to combat the Celtics’ superior size and keep them out of the paint.