Stephen Curry tried one of his patented floaters from the left side of the rim. Klay Thompson tried a layup from nearly the same spot a few minutes later.
Slightly different shots from the Golden State Warriors in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, with exact same result: They were spiked out of bounds by the Boston Celtics.
Robert Williams III had the block on Curry, Jaylen Brown had the block on Thompson, and if there were any lingering questions about whether this stage — the biggest one the NBA has — is too big for the Celtics, they were answered in those sequences.
Thing is, the Celtics might be too big for the Warriors.
Boston has half the job done in these NBA Finals, now up 2-1 over Golden State after running out to a huge lead, wasting every bit of it and then closing strong to win 116-100 on Wednesday night. The Celtics, trailing late in the third quarter, faced pressure and stared it down. The Warriors now must do the same in Game 4 on Friday night, or else.
”I don’t think at this point there’s any anxiety from the players,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. ”It is what it is. We’ve been battle tested throughout the playoffs, and this far into a series, it should be on to the next. I think we’ve seen what makes us successful.”
Everybody has now.
Boston looks every bit the part of an NBA champion: The Celtics were bigger, stronger, faster and tougher in Game 3, and if all that wasn’t damning enough, the Warriors will wait to find out if Curry was simply shaken up after getting slammed into by Boston’s Al Horford in the final minutes while a bunch of players were diving for a loose ball, or if he’s re-sprained his left foot — the same injury he had late in the regular season, suffered, ironically, against the Celtics.
”I’ll be all right,” Curry insisted.
The Warriors know what the alternative would mean.
”We need him,” Thompson said, ”if we want to win this thing.”
It’s more than just needing Curry. At this point, they might need him to be at his very best.
All, to be certain, is not lost. The Warriors have won six consecutive games after a loss. They’ve been here before. They’ve answered. The core of Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green were down 2-1 in the 2015 finals before rallying to win their first title together. They know how to turn things around.
They need to do it again Friday, or else a Celtics team that was 25-25 after 50 games this season is going to be on the brink of hanging an 18th championship banner.
”We’ll be better,” Green said after finishing with two points, four rebounds, three assists and six fouls, plus after hearing an untold number of loud, profane chants from many in the Boston crowd. ”I’ll be better. Come out, win Game 4. Go back 2-2.”
The confidence is still there.
It’s not shaken on the Boston side, either.
Celtic Pride was on full display in Game 3. An 18-point first-half lead got completely erased in the third quarter, another disaster third for Boston, and the Warriors went up 83-82. This is where a team that has exactly zero players who had been in the NBA Finals before last week could have panicked and folded. Instead, the Celtics recovered on the fly and outscored Golden State 34-17 the rest of the way.
”We found a way,” the Celtics’ Marcus Smart said. ”That’s what makes us such a great team, because we still found a way to counterbalance that and come out with a victory or put ourselves in a good position to win at the end of the game.”
Now, it’s Golden State’s turn.
If Boston had let Game 3 slip away, it would have been incredibly tough for the Celtics to hoist the trophy. Along the same lines, the Warriors know what Game 4 means. It’s not an elimination game, and a 3-1 deficit doesn’t assure defeat — they learned that the hard way in 2016 against Cleveland — but it’s basically a must win.
”We let one slip away,” Thompson said. ”We have a beautiful opportunity Friday to even a series and do what we were supposed to do, and that was get one on the road.”
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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