Just another game?
One of 82?
A meaningless, mid-January regular-season contest?
Ask Al Horford.
“I wanted to win,” Horford said. “I wanted to win really bad.”
The Celtics beat the Warriors in overtime Thursday in a Finals rematch that for most of the three hours these two teams dueled really felt like one. “Lot of energy tonight,” said Jaylen Brown. The TD Garden crowd, more than 18,000 strong, filed in early. The let’s go, Celtics chants lingered late. In his return from injury, Brown was loudly cheered. Draymond Green, a fast-rising Boston sports villain, was vigorously booed. Asked about the anticipation in the locker room, Joe Mazzulla deadpanned, “I’m sure they’ve thought about it.” Steve Kerr was more emphatic. Said Kerr, “Tonight will be a game with no shortage of motivation, for sure.”
Indeed. Boston came into this game rolling. They had won seven straight and were beginning to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the Eastern Conference. They have two All-Stars, defensive versatility and enviable depth. Including Horford. The NBA shelved the Comeback Player of the Year award decades ago, but Horford’s surge the last two seasons is reason enough to bring it back. Left for dead after a lackluster season in Philadelphia, Horford repaired his game (and his body) in Oklahoma City before returning to Boston last season, where he has been a model of consistency. He’s shooting a career-best 44.1% from three in this season and is an anchor of a top-10 defense. Midway through the first quarter, Horford—age 36—chased down Jordan Poole—age 23—in transition, blocking his layup attempt before it hit the backboard.
“Al looked like he was 25 tonight,” said Jayson Tatum.
“Just out there competing,” Horford said.
The Warriors are in the middle of a bizarro season. At home they are the Warriors, the defending champs, a sharpshooting team with a top-three defense. They are 21–3 at the Chase Center, with wins over Cleveland, Boston and Memphis. On the road they devolve into a stumbling, bumbling version, turnover prone with a defense statistically on par with cellar dwellers Houston and San Antonio. They are 5–18 away from home this season—and 0–11 against teams with winning records.
On Thursday, the Warriors played with energy. Kerr tweaked the lineup, plugging Poole in for Kevon Looney, opting for spacing over size. And it was effective. They got beat up on the glass (63–47) and in the paint (52–30) but compensated by connecting on 18 threes. Stephen Curry hit on six of them—including a gut punch of a midcourt heave just before halftime that gave Golden State a one-point lead—while Klay Thompson chipped in with four. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Warriors held an eight-point lead.
In the final six minutes, Boston’s stars showed up. The Warriors have been a tough matchup for Tatum. He struggled in the Finals and was 6-of-21 in a loss in Golden State last month. On Thursday, hounded by Green and Andrew Wiggins, he was 9-of-27. He committed seven turnovers. But he pulled down 19 rebounds. He handed out six assists. He collected three steals. And he heated up down the stretch, scoring six points in the last five minutes and finding Horford for an open three. An overtime three opened up a seven-point lead and a pair of free throws in the final minute—his 48th minute—put the game away.
“To be down like that and come back in overtime,” said Tatum, “we’ll take it every day of the week.”
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For Brown, it was a similar story. In his first game since going out with an adductor strain last week, Brown struggled. His timing looked off. His rhythm wasn’t there. Yet in the closing seconds of regulation, Brown knocked down a game-tying three-pointer. And when the Celtics needed more in overtime, Brown delivered, chipping in five points and two assists to close out the win.
Thursday’s win doesn’t avenge anything. The Warriors are still the 2022 champions, and the Celtics will forever live with the memory of champagne-soaked players celebrating on their home floor. But it does offer some closure. In December, Tatum said, Boston “bought into” the revenge narrative. “Everybody wanted to win so bad,” Tatum said. “I think that was the first time all season that we played out of character.” Before the game, the Celtics discussed the best way to approach this one. “We lost the championship,” said Tatum. “No one win can bring that back. We can’t go back in time and change that.” Entering this one, said Tatum, the team did “not make it bigger than it is.”
A real Finals rematch won’t come until June, if it comes at all. The Warriors have to figure out how to win on the road, and the Celtics have a deep Eastern Conference field to contend with. But Boston has learned from Golden State, in the Finals, in December and Thursday night. “I think what we’ve learned is it takes a mindset in order to be successful,” said Mazzulla. “You can’t be inconsistent with that.”