Celtics Take Game 1 of 2022 NBA Finals, Steal Home Court Advantage

I started writing this post when Marcus Smart hit a dagger three ball to make it 117-103 with under 5 minutes to play in the 4th. Boston is going to win this game by at least 10, probably 15+, after being down 10-15 points for most of the third quarter.

I am highly impressed with Boston right now.

Coming into this series, I wasn’t concerned about their lack of experience compared to Golden State–I feel like at this point, the experience mismatch doesn’t really matter. These Celtics have beaten multiple squads with Championship and/or Finals experience on this playoff run. It didn’t matter that they were less experienced than the Nets, or the Bucks, or the Heat. This Celtics group has been to three Conference Finals since 2018. They’ve got tons of playoff experience, just not Finals experience.

If their lack of Finals experience was going to hold them back, it would’ve been in a game just like this. They had a halftime lead, then watched it evaporate in record time after the Warriors went on one of their characteristic third quarter rampages–the threes raining down, the crowd going crazy, the other team completely flustered and making boneheaded mistakes in their desperation to keep up the pace.

If there was ever a moment where Boston’s inexperience was going to show, it was that third quarter. Normally, a young and inexperienced team is going to fold after getting haymakered in the jaw like that. They’re going to have a collective meltdown in a moment like that.

But then Boston went and outscored Golden State 40-16 in the 4th quarter, hitting an absurd 9-12 threes and 15-22 of their total field goal attempts to close out the game.

This game really surprised me. For one thing, Steph had 21 points in the 1st quarter. At that point, I thought to myself, “Oh shit, Steph is going for 50 tonight. He’s going to lock up that Finals MVP right off the bat.” But then he barely played in the second quarter, and cooled off dramatically over the remainder of the game. He still finished with 34 points on 7-14 three point shooting, (12-25 overall from the floor), but was a -9, and again, 21 of those 34 points were in the first quarter. So outside of that first quarter, he was pretty quiet.

Look, I have always thought the Celtics had a real chance to win this series, and then I became even more confident in that belief once I saw EVERYONE on the ESPN pregame panel pick the Warriors to lift the trophy. The talking heads are frequently wrong and prone to groupthink–most are afraid to go out on a limb and risk looking stupid, so they always make the safe pick. And then once they’re proven wrong, they act like we should have all seen it coming the whole time.

When virtually all of the mainstream sports media is zigging, it’s usually a good idea to zag.

Boston has always had a chance in this series. They were the best defense in the league in the regular season, their net rating since they went on their run starting in January has been historically elite, and they have one of the deepest rosters in recent NBA history. This Celtics squad is legit.

And now they’ve just beaten the Warriors in San Fran, in a game where Jayson Tatum shot 3-17 from the floor for just 12 points, and in a game where Steph Curry came out on fire for 21 points in the first quarter.

This Boston team just doesn’t give a fuck. Any time you expect them to collapse, they rally. In situations where lesser teams would’ve imploded, the 2022 Boston Celtics stare death in the face and laugh.

When they blew Game 5 at home to Milwaukee in the second round to go down 3-2, and had to go to Milwaukee to force a Game 7, I thought they were cooked. Instead, they won at Milwaukee, then blew the Bucks out in Game 7.

They almost blew a 3-2 lead to the Heat in the Conference Finals. They let Jimmy go for 47 in Game 6 in Boston to force a Game 7 back in Miami. The Celtics then proceeded to nearly blow a 13 point lead with 3.5 minutes remaining in the game, but managed to hold on to win the game.

And then tonight, they weathered the vaunted Third Quarter Warriors Run that most other teams find it impossible to overcome. The Warriors have made it “their thing” to bury teams in the third quarter and never look back. At the 2:10 mark of the third quarter, Golden State was up 87-72. They were up 12 going into the 4th. Most of the time, when Golden State has you in that position, you don’t recover. Most other teams cannot dig themselves out of those types of holes against the Warriors.

But Boston could, and they did. There was a reason I didn’t turn the game off when the Warriors went up 15. Because by this point in the postseason, I’ve learned to stop doubting them and to stop counting them out. I don’t know what it is about them, but they just seem able to overcome any and every obstacle in their way–including ones they put there themselves. They’re not perfect–they make a lot of mistakes and are often prone to sloppiness. But they somehow always manage to recover and right the ship. They overcame their superstar going 3-17 from the floor tonight–they somehow were still able to win by 12!

Part of it was the fact that Tatum finished with 13 assists. That’s what makes him great: when his jumper isn’t falling, he finds other ways to contribute. I know Tatum idolizes Kobe, but Kobe wouldn’t have pivoted to a playmaker role in a game like this where his shot wasn’t falling–Tatum did, and it was a big part of the reason his team was able to win.

But we also have to acknowledge just how incredible Boston is as a team. Tatum has one of the best supporting casts a superstar player could ever ask for. You’ve got a highly capable second scoring option in Jaylen Brown, who had 24-7-5 on 10-23 shooting. Al Horford, in his first Finals game ever, came up huge with 26 points on 9-12 shooting (6-8 from three). Marcus Smart, the DPOTY, had 18 points on 7-11 shooting (4-7 shooting). And then freaking Derrick White dropped 21 off the bench on 5-8 three point shooting.

This is what I mean when I say Boston is one of the deepest teams in recent NBA history–there isn’t a single player they trot out there who is a weak link. There isn’t one guy on the Celtics where the other team goes, “Okay, we can pick on that guy.” Or, “We don’t have to worry about that guy.”

Nope. Boston’s starting 5 is rock solid. They all play defense, they can all shoot the three (except Rob Williams, who may start to see a reduced role going forward), and most importantly, they’re all big and long. Boston’s smallest player is Marcus Smart, and he’s still 6’3″ and 220lbs (and obviously the Defensive Player of the Year).

Boston’s bench is great, too, because their main bench rotation guys–White, Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard–all can play defense, and all can shoot the three.

And for this reason, there are a lot of people out there who are hesitant to call Tatum a true superstar. I personally think he is a superstar, but I understand why people don’t: because he plays on such a deep team. He can have a 3-17 shooting night and his team can still win by 12 because they’re so incredibly deep and talented. And at times it does feel like Boston runs a system where basically everyone is equal–like there is no pecking order when it comes to who gets what number of shot attempts on a nightly basis. They just feed whoever has the hot hand, and everyone on the team is cool with it.

It’s a very Warriors-esque style of play–unselfish, egoless and all about finding the best look and riding the hot hand. Marcus Smart sat for most of the 4th quarter and he didn’t care, because the lineup Boston had out there was in a rhythm. It’s all about what’s best for the team with these guys.

Of course, Golden State is the same way (and that should be a lesson to all the rest of the teams that these are the final two teams remaining in the postseason.)

The difference here is that the Celtics are bigger and more athletic than the Warriors.

This is why I thought Boston had a chance in this series. I didn’t write a preview/prediction post before the series began because I was in the process of moving and had a ton on my plate, but if I had, the bulk of that post would’ve been about how Boston has a much better shot in this series than the media is giving them. I think I still would’ve chickened out and picked Warriors in 6, but I would’ve gone out of my way to make clear that Boston could very well win this series.

However, that said, I would’ve bet a lot of money on Golden State winning this Game 1 if I were still in a state that allowed legal sports betting. I thought it was just set up perfectly for the Warriors to win: they’re more rested, they’re at home, they’re the more experienced team, and they almost always win Game 1 of any playoff series. Prior to tonight, Golden State under Steve Kerr was 21-2 in Game 1s of playoff series under Steve Kerr, with their only playoff Game 1 losses being to OKC in the 2016 Conference Finals, and to Toronto in the 2019 Finals.

It just seemed like it was set up for Golden State to win this game–as the older and more experienced squad, they definitely wanted to make a point out of asserting their dominance early and setting the tone. And until the 4th quarter, it looked like they were well on their way to doing so.

I was sort of surprised that the Warriors held up so well rebounding the ball for a lot of this game. Kevon Looney is Mr. Offensive Rebounds, and he was a terror on the glass for a large stretch of the game–he finished with 6 offensive boards. Draymond Green pulled down 11 rebounds, and Golden State ultimately tied the Celtics in total rebounds in the game 39 apiece (12-7 offensive board edge), but Draymond was also just 2-12 from the floor for 4 points in this game. He’s got to be better going forward and I think he will be, because he is better than that.

As for the overall outlook on the series, I think we’re in for a long series. The Warriors are not going to get embarrassed, although it is possible for them to get their asses handed to them. It felt like Boston absorbed Golden State’s haymaker tonight and responded, “Is that all you got?” I would be worried if I were a Warriors fan/bettor right now.

But just to keep things in perspective, Boston shot a ridiculous 21-41 from three as a team tonight, and that’s just not going to happen again. Most NBA games these days come down to which team is more efficient from three, and while Golden State was an impressive 19-45 (42%) from three as a team, Boston was just better. You are not beating a team when they shoot 21-41 from the three point line.

Boston’s edge in this series was always going to be size and athleticism–although, again, Looney and Draymond did quite well on the glass tonight, way better than I would’ve expected them to do. But if Boston is also shooting efficiently from three, just forget about it. Nobody’s beating them.

There might be no other team out there better equipped to handle all the Warriors’ perimeter players. Boston has 5 starters who all play at least legit defense, with Smart and Robert Williams both being elite defenders. Boston matches up pretty well with the Warriors, and I think Boston offensively is a bad matchup for the Warriors’ defense.

We’ll see how the rest of this series plays out. The Celtics’ Achilles heel this postseason has been inconsistency, and they’re very prone to letdown games. I expect them to shit the bed at least once or twice in this series. But I’d still be worried if I were a Warriors fan, because it feels like when both teams are at their best, Boston wins.

Update– Some additional thoughts after a day has passed.

  1. The Warriors are now 1-8 in their last 9 NBA Finals games without KD. For any Warriors Haters out there who think they’re fraudulent, this is just more ammo. If the Warriors lose this series, this is really going to affect how people view their dynasty run. It might start to be called a “dynasty” in quotation marks, or with an asterisk next to it. People will say that Golden State could only win when they had KD, and when Kyrie and Kevin Love were hurt in 2015. But this is about more than just outside voices criticizing the Warriors: Draymond Green himself told KD during the 2019 season, “We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.” If the Warriors lose this series to the Celtics, Draymond Green looks like a fool for saying that. People will bring that up. And that will be how the Warriors are defined: they won a lot of games, but they needed KD and injuries to the other team to actually win championships. When it was an even playing field, they couldn’t get the job done. So there’s a lot of pressure on the Warriors.
  2. After scoring 21 points in the first quarter and hitting 6-8 threes, Steph Curry went 0-2 from the floor for 0 points in the second quarter, 3-8 from the floor for 9 points in the third quarter, and 2-6 from the floor for 4 points in the fourth quarter. So he was 5-16 from the floor for 13 points following his scorching hot first quarter. Maybe he just got cold, or maybe it had to do with the Celtics making some adjustments on how they defended him. For some reason, they played drop coverage on Steph in the first quarter and he just blowtorched them. He’s going to have to make some adjustments himself because there’s no way Boston plays drop coverage on him going forward. Steph is too good to be shut down, so it’s not like he’ll be this bad for the rest of the series. But it’s not going to be easy for him to get buckets going forward.
  3. If Golden State loses Game 2, this series is a wrap. And it’s a very real possibility that Golden State loses Game 2: Boston is 7-2 on the road in these playoffs. Now, I don’t think Boston will shoot 50% from three in the next game, or probably in any game going forward in this series, but then again, it has happened before in the Finals: the 2014 Spurs shot lights out for the entire Finals and made short work of the Heat. Most observers didn’t believe the Spurs could keep up their hot shooting for the whole series, but they did, and they were unbeatable. So it’s not like we can just assume the Celtics will cool down from three–it’s likely, but it’s not a certainty.
  4. Jayson Tatum, however, will probably not shoot this poorly again in the series. I mean, it’s a big deal that Boston won despite Tatum going 3-17 from the floor.

I think at this point, Boston should be favored to win the series. They just look like the better team. But I won’t count out Golden State. That would be foolish. Game 2 will be pivotal. I think Golden State will come out on fire and get the win, but if they don’t, this series is over.

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