SAN FRANCISCO — Like two heavyweights feeling each other out in the opening round of a championship bout, the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics opened the 2022 NBA Finals, with the Celtics striking the first blow with a 120-108 comeback victory.
The Celtics won Game 1 with a scintillating 17-0 run in the fourth quarter, the second-largest spurt in the closing frame of a Finals game over the past 50 seasons.
Like many NBA Finals Game 1s, Thursday night’s contest began as less of a display of surprise tactics than two elite teams throwing their best stuff at their opponent and observing what it can and can’t handle. The Warriors showed off their elegant offense, full of constant motion and clever off-ball action, to test the Celtics’ defensive precision. The Celtics worked their stretchy drive-and-kick game, patiently working for favorable matchups or open looks against the Warriors’ rotations. Both teams deployed their defensive switch-heavy schemes, with the Warriors dabbling in occasional zone coverage.
With a rousing fourth-quarter comeback, the Celtics overcame a 15-point second-half deficit. In a flash, Boston unleashed a devastating barrage from beyond the arc. In less than seven minutes, the Celtics nailed six 3-pointers, many of them heavily contested. By midway through the fourth, Boston had completely erased a deficit that stood at 12 points to start the quarter. All the while, the Warriors turned ice cold from the field. In the final tally, the Celtics outscored the Warriors 40-16 in the final frame, shooting 9-for-12 on field goals from deep, the most recorded by any team in the fourth quarter in Finals history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Though the Warriors centered their defensive strategy on first-team All-NBA forward Jayson Tatum, it was teammates Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Derrick White who provided the firepower during the Celtics’ blistering late run. Each topped 20 points on the night — Marcus Smart added 18 of his own, including four 3-pointers — more than compensating for Tatum’s 3-for-17 struggle. To illustrate the improbable nature of the performance, Horford’s six 3-pointers represented the most in any game of his career, regular season or playoffs. White, a catalyzing midseason acquisition, has enabled the Celtics to play small and with great spacing. And Brown, so opportunistic in the flow of the offense, never relented with his aggressive play.
The Celtics don’t boast the kind of elegant offense that defines the Warriors, but they have established themselves as a deadly offense from long distance. Coming into the Finals, Boston had attempted 45.5% of its field goals from 3-point range — only the Dallas Mavericks attempted a higher percentage this postseason.
Those stout defenses — the NBA’s two strongest — couldn’t do much to contain the offensive explosion set off at Chase Center in the first half. As strong as the Celtics have been defensively during the regular season and postseason, they neglected the single most important imperative: Find Stephen Curry early and stay attached.
In the first quarter alone, Curry, in search of his first Finals MVP, drained an NBA-record six 3-pointers, four of them uncontested. His 21 points in the opening frame were his most in any quarter in a Finals game, the most by any player in a Finals first quarter, and the fourth most overall in any Finals quarter — only Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas have scored more. Ultimately, the Warriors squandered Curry’s 34-point output.
The Celtics, who reached their first Finals since 2010 on the strength of their defense, demonstrated that they have an offensive bag that can punish the Warriors’ defensive rotation on the right night. If Boston can pair a fraction of its offensive exhibition in Game 1 with its signature defense on three additional occasions, the Celtics will have an opportunity to consummate a steady nine-year rebuild following their legendary Big Three era.