SAN FRANCISCO—It’s the two words Celtics fans have come to dread:
It’s closing in on Bill Buckner, Deflategate and Babe Ruth Trade as phrases that send chills through fans in greater New England. Officially the Celtics are not a bad third quarter team. In the regular season, they had a plus-2.7 scoring differential in the third quarter. In the playoffs, it has dipped to minus-0.8—cringey, but not an awful number.
Lately, though, some third quarters have been truly catastrophic. There was the 34–17 blitz Milwaukee put on them in Game 3 of the conference semifinals. The 39–17 drubbing Miami clubbed Boston with in Game 1 of the conference finals. In Game 1 of the Finals, Golden State hit the Celtics with a 38–24 third quarter. Boston rallied, stunning the Warriors with a 40–15 fourth quarter to come away with the win.
The Celtics played with fire again in Game 2, allowing Golden State to run off a 35–14 third quarter, stretching a two-point halftime lead to 23. This time, though, Boston couldn’t rally, allowing Golden State to even the series with a 107–88 win.
“Disappointing,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka.
“Definitely frustrating,” said Derrick White.
For Golden State, Sunday felt therapeutic. For three days the Warriors heard what Draymond Green termed simply “the noise.” About how Golden State coughed up a double-digit fourth quarter lead in Game 1. About how after a Stephen Curry first-quarter explosion the Dubs’ offense was stifled by a swarming Boston defense. About how Green, the engine of this Warriors team, missed 10 of his 12 shots.
“We come out and win tomorrow and everything's back to normal,” Green said on Saturday. “The Warriors are fine.”
Golden State won, battering Boston in a second half that quickly devolved into a laugher. In Game 1, Curry played his best in the first quarter. In Game 2, it was the third. Curry scored 14 points in the quarter. He made four of his nine shots. He connected on three of his six threes. The Boston defense that blanketed him over the final three quarters of Game 1 had no answer for him in Game 2. Curry finished with 29 points, collecting six rebounds and four assists along with them.
“Steph was breathtaking in that quarter,” Steve Kerr said. “Not just the shot making but the defensive effort. He just doesn't get enough credit for his level of conditioning, physicality and defense.”
The Celtics entered Game 2 keenly aware of their third quarter issues. “We’ve just got to be more aware,” Jayson Tatum said on Saturday. “It’s one thing to talk about it, but we’ve got to go out there and do it and just not ease our way into the third quarter that we do a lot of the times.” Added Marcus Smart, “Just lock down a little bit more. … We’ve been doing it for a long time. We’ve had a lot of practice. We’ve got to fix it.”
They didn’t. Before Game 2, Green took on the challenge of playing better. “I understand that ultimately, if I play well, we win,” Green said. “And if I don’t, we still can, but if I do, we win. So that falls on me.” Offensively, Green was active on Sunday, scoring nine points (on 2-of-3 shooting) and adding five rebounds and seven assists. Defensively, he was a nightmare. “He lit a fire under us,” said Gary Payton II. Tatum finished with 28 points but was a whopping minus-36. Jaylen Brown shot 5-for-17 from the floor. Al Horford, who torched the Warriors for 26 points in Game 1, had just two in Game 2.
“We were kind of soft in the first game,” said Payton. “And that was our emphasis coming out this game. Just being aggressive and playing the Warriors basketball we know how to play.”
Overall the Warriors defense was brilliant. Robert Williams, limited to just 14 minutes, scored two points. Marcus Smart finished with the same. Derrick White, a hero for Boston in Game 1, scored 12 points but needed 13 shots to do it. The Celtics shot 37.5% from the floor, committing 19 turnovers that led to 33 Golden State points.
“Gave away a lot of opportunities,” Udoka said. “Instead of tightening up in that area we did more of the same.”
Said Kerr, “It was pretty obvious, just our level of force and physicality was ramped up quite a bit.”
The Celtics will have to figure out a counter when the series shifts to Boston on Wednesday. It will begin with the third quarters. “It’s something we have to fix,” admitted Horford. They will need a better defense against the Warriors’ three-point shooters, including Jordan Poole (17 points) and Andrew Wiggins (11) who contributed to Golden State’s 40% shooting from beyond the arc.
“It is what it is,” Horford said. “On to Game 3. I can’t wait to get to the Garden. I know it’s going to be rocking.”
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