BOSTON — The Warriors always knew who they were.
The Celtics found themselves so late in the season that it seemed impossible for them to make a championship run. Yet, nearly five months after embarking on one of the great turnarounds in NBA history, they were leading the best-of-seven NBA Finals 2-1.
But they were exhausted. The team that made it to the finals by wearing down their opponents fell to the only team that had the willpower, skills, and health to survive them.
The Celtics would get saves for the first 20 seconds of a possession, then fade with the clock ticking down and the ball reaching Stephen Curry’s hands. They would get the stoppage, let the offensive rebound go unchallenged, and then the Warriors would take their second chance. The Finals MVP would come down and roll a 3 before the Celtics were even picked.
“Every possession has a purpose. It seemed like the other dressing room realized that. We didn’t,” Rob Williams said. “They had meaning in everything they did.”
Every time Boston’s attention waned, Curry came to life. Even when the Celtics made a furious comeback in the second half of Game 6 on Thursday – which they lost 103-90 – Curry would bide his time and attack at the right time for repeated tough finishes to the edge. The Warriors were still on the move, while the Celtics stagnated on offense, returning to the past form they had spent so long leaving behind.
“They were putting bodies in front of us, making us work for everything we had. It was tough,” Marcus Smart said. “We tried everything we possibly knew. We even tried things that we haven’t tried in the whole series. It just wasn’t enough for us.
In the end, the Celtics needed their best players to come in the same night, at the same time. Although Jaylen Brown had 34 points and continued to find ways to navigate tight spaces in the Warriors’ defense, Jayson Tatum never broke through.
“I keep saying it hurts,” Tatum said. “Being with this group, the things we’ve overcome throughout the season, getting to this point, knowing how badly we wanted it. In short, it’s a terrible feeling.
Jayson Tatum says one of the lessons he’s learned from this playoff run is: “It’s hard to get there, and it’s even harder to get over it and win it. .”
—Boston Celtics (@celtics) June 17, 2022
Throughout the series, Andrew Wiggins kept Tatum from going anywhere he wanted with the kind of pace he was used to.
“I’m just trying to make it difficult for him, that’s all. He’s a great player who can score at all three levels so I tried to contain him, but he’s tough,” said Wiggins. Athleticism. “I just try to make it difficult, use my length and limit it. A guy like that, you know he’s going to hit hard sometimes. You can’t get discouraged and you have to keep fighting.
As hard as the Celtics came in with their confusing turnovers, they were getting deflections at the other end to keep attacking. But then there was the moment with just under a minute left in the first half when Tatum landed a pass to Curry and thundered into the break. Draymond Green was ready to make up for passing the ball as he backpedaled to the rim, stunting to his left just as Tatum went to collect the ball and bait Tatum into his euro step.
Green then jumped to his right and went straight, forcing Tatum to a wild miss as he pounded through the air. These are the brilliant plays the Warriors defense made repeatedly during their three-game winning streak to close out the championship, knowing Boston’s tendencies to the most granular detail and executing that information.
“Learn and understand who he is in this league. You’re a first-team All-Star, All-NBA guy for a reason,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said of his message to Tatum. is just the beginning of how you’ll be kept and how much attention you’ll get.”
Udoka said that after Tatum learned to take on all the cover a defense could throw at him throughout the season, the Finals were just “tough” for the Celtics star.
It was obvious he was gassed as the series continued, but the Warriors gave him a litany of things he will have to deal with and overcome if he is to be the championship-caliber superstar the Celtics have. will need to take the next walk.
“For him, it’s just about continuing to grow and understanding that you’re going to see that the rest of your career. It’s just the beginning,” Udoka said. “The growth he’s shown in as a playmaker this year and in some areas, I think that’s the next step for him. Figuring that out, getting to where some of the veterans who have seen it all and picked up their tunes early in their careers are. A highly motivated guy who works extremely hard, high IQ, smart guy who will learn from it and understand it. I think that will propel him forward, definitely motivate him.
But it was more than Tatum’s struggles. The Warriors have continually picked Brown’s pocket in the series’ greatest moments. Brown said the Warriors forced the Celtics to do things they didn’t want to do throughout the series, resulting in turnovers and misses.
Although Smart was instrumental in keeping the team alive as they floundered through the game and Rob Williams cleaned up mistakes left and right, there was a connectivity and diversity of skills with the Warriors throughout their rotation that Boston lacked at the end.
“Where other teams can be solid for a quarter or two, they’ve been consistent until then. Really stuck to their morals,” Udoka said. “We didn’t charge them, or give them the ball. Very homogeneous group so far. They weren’t going to fight. It puts a lot of stress on you to score and keep up with them, which they do offensively.
Udoka called it the “versatility” of the Warriors, a mix of lone scorers who like to play with a deep catalog of off-ball action to take advantage of when the defense charges anywhere on the floor. When the Celtics felt the pressure to score in the half court, the weight of the moment too often tied them down.
“For us, we know that we have guys who can go get a basket. It’s more about looking at the big picture, not stagnating, from your point of view,” Udoka said. “We can lean on that when we have to. When teams are particularly focused on taking out certain guys, we have to have a fallback, whether it’s off-ball action, post-up action, some of the things we did tonight and throughout the season and sometimes playoffs.
The Celtics made some good adjustments, and they also made some failed bets in Game 6. Brown had phenomenal play on offense, and Al Horford and Smart put in incredible effort. But a stagnant attack that watches and waits won’t win a title. The Celtics have yet another step to take.
“I felt like we were still fighting. But even when we were fighting and we got to what felt like striking distance, we were turning the ball over again,” Horford said. “We would do something that wasn’t solid or not solid.”
Brown and Tatum recognized the scale of the challenge in the NBA Finals, that taking that final step is tougher than anything they’ve faced before. But throughout this series, the Celtics always felt like they were the ones hitting each other. Udoka said before Game 5 that they should have been “at least” 3-1 if they had taken care of things up front – a perpetually huge “if” throughout the season.
Before Game 6, he said that if some things had bounced differently, they could have been in a different situation other than their backs against the wall. That their vibe was business as usual rather than anger. Maybe they needed that advantage, that fervor.
“They won and we lost. We did it to ourselves,” Brown said. “Of course we had opportunities to come up and win. It stings. Still a young squad. Still got a lot to learn. Nothing to chew on. Tough day for Boston. Tough day for the Celtics. Yeah, I don’t know what to say.
Now the Celtics have to learn and grow. Smart said they all made mistakes that could have been avoided, whether through aggression or passivity. There is still a balance to be found, a way of living on this edge without stepping over it. It’s something the Warriors have mastered and the Celtics will have to achieve one day. But their journey so far, their ability to face their flaws and overcome them, is what makes the road ahead so promising for a young team learning from their failures.
“We went through hell to get here. We didn’t play our best basketball, our best series. It’s probably our worst streak,” Smart said. “The things we went through to get here showed us what we have to come for us in the future. I think that’s why we have confidence in the future. We all know what the goal is in the future. ‘coming.
Aldridge: The Warriors, like all champions, refuse to leave the stage
(Photo of Marcus Smart shooting against the Andrew Wiggins defense: Kyle Terada/USA Today)