Celtics’ Game 4 loss was a squandered chance to take control

BOSTON — Sooooo … Are we having fun yet?

After a 43-point masterpiece by Steph Curry that evened the NBA Finals at two games apiece, we’re getting exactly the barnburner of a finals we hoped for. Through four games, we’re not only even on games but have a composite score that separates these sides by one measly point, 422-421.

And yet, it hasn’t felt that way for much of the series. With winners alternating each game, we’ve left the arena every time convinced the evening’s victor had taken control of the series. It turns out this is a bit like “taking control” of a bucking bronco. The series is just gonna go where it wants to go; each winner has lost the next game by double figures.

Nonetheless, this one perhaps felt a bit bigger. It always does when the team without home-court advantage trails 2-1 heading into Game 4; lose, and the season is likely toast, but eke out a road win, and suddenly they have the advantage again. For three and a half quarters, the former scenario was very much on the table. Boston’s lead was always tenuous, but the feeling in the TD Garden was that the Celtics had the upper hand. To the extent it was close, it seemed to be close more because of the Celtics’ mistakes. They were in front virtually from the start and only briefly surrendered their advantage for 42 minutes.

This is where rewatching the game and going back through the numbers is helpful, because you watch it live and think one thing happened, and then when you parse back through, you realize the game played out differently.

Yes, it felt like Boston had control, and that only the Celtics’ tendency to beat themselves with live-ball turnovers and heavy doses of Steph Curry’s shooting ridiculousness could keep the Warriors afloat. But keeping an eye on the numbers told a different story: Boston was building an advantage through some “make or miss” fortune, knocking down nine of its first 18 3-point attempts while the non-Curry Warriors struggled to get anything to go down.

That underlying current is the story within the story that explains why the series is tied rather than titled toward an 18th Beantown banner. The one thing you can do against a team with great shooters is take more shots than they do. That’s also the one thing Boston had failed to do. It’s not like it’s a big advantage the other way: Through four games, the Warriors have one more offensive rebound and one fewer turnover.

But there’s the thing: Golden State, historically, almost always takes fewer shots than its opponents. Even in a comfortable first-round “gentleman’s sweep” over Denver, the Warriors had a five-possession deficit. Against Memphis in the second round, that ballooned to 42. The Warriors did manage to out-possession a Dallas team that was allergic to offensive rebounding, but heading into the finals, this figured to be an area where Boston could have at least an extra possession or two every night. So far, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Those extra shots were the reason Golden State could survive; especially since so many of them were goofy, live-ball turnovers that sprung into breaks the other way. Golden State also did its share of damage on the boards, particularly with the two putbacks Andrew Wiggins had in the fourth quarter.

In retrospect, it’s amazing the Warriors stayed afloat given how many things were working against them in the early going, and not just the Celtics’ 3-point shooting. For starters, Draymond Green turned into Ben Simmons before our eyes. Seriously, look at this:

Green finished with just two points and also suffered the rare humiliation of a Mom burn because of his play. That wasn’t all. Klay Thompson and Wiggins couldn’t make shots, with each going 7-of-17 from the floor, while one of Steve Kerr’s biggest adjustments was completely ineffective (newly promoted starter Otto Porter Jr. had two points in 15 minutes).

And with all that, Golden State won by 10 because the Celtics shot themselves in the foot on offense, and Curry shot them in the heart on defense.

The low-key list of Boston self-inflicted wounds is numerous. An insatiable appetite for hunting Nemanja Bjelica in switches when Jordan Poole is just sitting right there waiting to get torched. A predilection for “prevent offense” resulted in several slow, late-clock trips as their attack went off the rails in the fourth, notably a shot-clock violation at the seven-minute mark where they burned the clock down to single digits before trying to do anything. And of course, the bad passes. Soooo many bad passes.

At times the afflictions piled on one another. Boston got its last paint points with 7:32 left; that is not a typo. Only one shot after that came in the paint, and it was blocked. Here’s a play where the Celtics burned clock, iso-ed against Bjelica and settled for a contested long jumper all in one; it just needed an errant pass at the end for Celtics bingo.

In a related story, Boston had six points and zero free-throw attempts in the final seven and a half minutes as the shooting variance inevitably reverted to the mean. (The Celtics still finished the night 15-for-38 from distance — 39.5 percent — despite the mountain of bricks late.)

And then there was Curry. Yes, what he did was nuts. On a team where nobody else can create off the dribble, he managed to be an offense unto himself, going far more heliocentric in these first four games than we’re used to seeing.

Even his paltry total of four assists didn’t tell the story, not when his passes to the likes of Green, Porter and Kevon Looney mostly ended up in resets. The most comical example of the impossibility of Curry assisting somebody was his drive-and-kick to himself with a minute left in the third quarter.

No, seriously, he basically set up his own 3-pointer. Watch as Curry drives down the lane and kicks to a wide-open Gary Payton II in the corner, whom the Celtics correctly disregard. And then Curry just keeps running to the corner and gets a handoff back from Payton, who screens Curry’s man so Steph can knock down a triple.

What does it all mean for Game 5? With the way this series has gone, who knows? What we can definitely say, however, is that this feels like a lost opportunity for the Celtics, a game where enough things went right for them and they were playing at home, and somehow lost by double figures anyway. The ugly late offense, in particular, is a long-standing issue for Boston.

And, to close it out, the other thing we can say at this point, is Steph Curry should be the NBA Finals MVP win or lose. He’s been that much better than everyone else. A losing player hasn’t won the award since Jerry West in 1969, but it’s hard to imagine a more clear case for breaking that half-century of tradition.


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