Thursday’s recovery from adversity was stunning and reverberated all the way back to Boston. It’s been 12 years since the Celtics had been in the Finals and it would be understandable for the neophyte players were succumb to their jitters, relent under the pressure from the third-time champions.
Instead, the Celtics responded with their best quarter of the season, shocking the sold-out crowd at Chase Center that have watched the Warriors overwhelm opponents with dominating third quarters so many times and then cruise to victory.
The 120-108 Game 1 win has probably made some believers of those basketball pundits who believed the Celtics weren’t experienced, talented or savvy enough to make this a competitive series. Horford, who turns 36 Friday, spearheaded a 40-16 fourth-quarter run that rendered Golden State helpless.
Trailing by 12 to begin the fourth, Boston scored the first 9 points of the period behind Brown’s brilliance and then took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Horford, who played with the energy and enthusiasm that had sputtered late in the Miami series . He scored 11 points in just 5 minutes, 46 seconds, while Brown, Derrick White and Payton Pritchard each added key 3-pointers.
The Celtics out Warrior-ed the Warriors, knocking down shots on every possession while their defense forced Curry into futile heroics to keep the Warriors close.
Not even Curry could bring the Warriors back. Golden State was completely engulfed by the Celtics avalanche of threes, their defensive aggression and ball movement. The Celtics picked a perfect time to play championship basketball.
“Yeah, that’s kind of who we’ve been all year,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Tough grinders, resilient group that we can always know we can rely on our defense to kind of buckle down when needed.
“Like I said, we weren’t playing our best in the first quarter. Curry got loose, didn’t score in the second quarter, and we held them to 22, got ourselves back in the game. They had another big third quarter due to some of our mistakes, lack of physicality on our part. Then we locked down again and played great in the fourth. We always rely on that. Impressive against a really elite scoring team.”
More impressive was the Celtics’ ability to withstand the surge from a team that has been here so often, that has used Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to put away opponents, and send their fans home happy into the cool San Francisco night.
This time, the Warriors faithful began streaming out of Chase Center after Marcus Smart, who was 0 for 5 from the 3-point line in the waning minutes of Game 7 against Miami, canned his second consecutive 3-pointer after he made his first fourth – quarter appearance with four minutes left.
“It just says what we’ve been doing all year,” Smart said. “We’ve been counted out all year. Rightfully so. We’ve had moments. But we continue to fight. That’s who we are. I think over the last couple months that’s our identity. I think it stuck with us for a reason.
“We’re always telling each other to stay confident. There’s a game or two where we’re going to need to help our team win. They’re going to do a good job on Jaylen and Jayson and everybody else. We came prepared, and that’s what it came down to.”
What was most astonishing about the Celtics run is that it did not include All-NBA first-team forward Tatum. He did not score in the fourth quarter and converted just one field goal in the second half. Tatum was 3 for 17 from the field, often frustrated by the Warriors trapping defense.
Tatum then turned himself into a playmaker, which he likely would not have done a few years ago. He contributed four assists in the fourth period, allowing his teammates to get open shots, playing decoy instead of forcing matters.
It’s a testament to the trust that’s been established over the past few months, a belief that regardless of the circumstances, they will at least mount a respond. They will never fold or relent.
“The message at the start of the fourth was, we’ve been here before,” Tatum said. “We know what it takes to overcome a deficit like that. Obviously that’s a great team. It’s not going to be easy. But just knowing we’ve been in that situation before and we’ve gotten ourselves out of it. We had a lot of time left, right? It wasn’t time to hang your head or be done, it was time to figure it out.”
The Celtics let their casual observers know that they are indeed poised, with the faith they can respond even from their lowest points. It happened again on the biggest stage.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.