Young, learning Celtics lose NBA Finals to Warriors, who were ready for the moment

BOSTON — The Warriors always knew who they were.

The Celtics found themselves so late in the season that it seemed impossible for them to make a championship run. Yet almost five months after they embarked on one of the great turnarounds in NBA history, they were leading the best-of-seven NBA Finals 2-1.

But they were exhausted. The team that made the Finals by wearing down its opponents fell to the one team that had the will, skill and bill of health to outlast them.

The Celtics would get stops for the first 20 seconds of a possession, then wilt with the clock winding down and the ball reaching Stephen Curry’s hands. They would get the stop, let the offensive rebound fall uncontested, then the Warriors would make good on their second chance. The Finals MVP would come down the floor and launch a 3 before the Celtics even got their assignments picked out.

“Every possession is purposeful. It seemed the other locker room realized that. We didn’t,” Rob Williams said. “They had a meaning to everything they were doing.”

Whenever Boston’s focus waned, Curry came alive. Even when the Celtics mounted a furious comeback in the second half of Game 6 on Thursday — which they lost 103-90 — Curry would bide his time and attack at the right moments for repeated tough finishes at the rim. The Warriors were always in motion, while the Celtics stagnated on offense, reverting to the past form they had spent so long leaving behind.

“They were putting bodies in front of us, making us work for everything we got. It was tough,” Marcus Smart said. “We tried everything we possibly knew. We even tried things that we haven’t tried the whole series. Just didn’t cut it for us.”

In the end, the Celtics needed their best players to step up on the same night, at the same time. Although Jaylen Brown had 34 points and kept finding ways to navigate tight spaces into the Warriors’ defense, Jayson Tatum never broke through.

“I just keep saying, it hurts,” Tatum said. “Being with this group, the things we’ve overcome throughout the season, getting to this point, just knowing how bad we wanted it. Coming up short, it’s a terrible feeling.”

Throughout the series, Andrew Wiggins kept Tatum from getting everywhere he wanted with the kind of rhythm he was accustomed to.

“I just try to make it hard for him, that’s all. He’s a great player that can score at all three levels, so I’ve been trying to contain him, but he’s tough,” Wiggins told The Athletic. “I just try to make it hard, use my length and limit him. A guy like that, you know he’s gonna make tough shots sometimes. You can’t get discouraged, and you gotta keep fighting.”

As hard as the Celtics made it on themselves with their perplexing turnovers, they were getting deflections on the other end to keep attacking. But then there was the moment with just under a minute left in the first half when Tatum picked off a pass to Curry and thundered on the break. Draymond Green was ready to make up for passing the ball away as he backpedaled to the rim, stunting to his left just as Tatum was going to gather the ball and baiting Tatum into his euro step move.

Green then jumped back to his right and went straight up, forcing Tatum into a wild miss as he flailed in the air. These were the brilliant plays the Warriors’ defense made repeatedly during their three-game winning streak to close on the championship, knowing Boston’s tendencies to the most granular details and executing on that intel.

“Learn and understand who he is in this league. You’re an All-Star, All-NBA first-team guy for a reason,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said of his message to Tatum. “This is only the start of how you’re going to be guarded and the attention you’re going to draw.”

Udoka said that after Tatum learned to take on every coverage a defense could throw at him throughout the season, the Finals were simply a “rough one” for the Celtics star.

It was apparent he was gassed as the series carried on, but the Warriors did a litany of things to him that he’ll have to process and overcome if he is going to be the championship-caliber superstar the Celtics will need to take the next step.

“For him, it’s just continuing to grow and understand you’re going to see this the rest of your career. This is just a start,” Udoka said. “The growth he showed as a playmaker this year and in certain areas, I think this is the next step for him. Figuring that out, getting to where some of the veterans are that have seen everything and took their lumps early in their careers. Very motivated guy that works extremely hard, high IQ, intelligent guy that will learn from this and figure it out. I think it will propel him to go forward, definitely motivate him.”

But this was about more than Tatum’s struggles. The Warriors picked Brown’s pocket continually in the biggest moments of the series. Brown said the Warriors forced the Celtics into doing stuff they didn’t want to do throughout the series, leading to turnovers and bad misses.

Though Smart was instrumental in keeping the team alive while it floundered over the course of the game and Rob Williams cleaned up mistakes left and right, there was connectedness and skill diversity to the Warriors throughout their rotation that Boston lacked in the end.

“Where other teams may be solid for a quarter or two, they stayed consistent as far as that. Really stuck to their morals,” Udoka said. “We didn’t make them pay, or gave them the ball. Very consistent group as far as that. They weren’t going to beat themselves. Puts a tremendous amount of stress on you to score and keep up with them, what they do offensively.”

Udoka called it the Warriors’ “versatility,” a blend of isolation scorers who love to make plays with a deep catalog of off-ball actions to take advantage when the defense loads up anywhere on the floor. When the Celtics felt the pressure to score in the half court, the weight of the moment would too often grind them to a halt.

“For us, we know we have guys that can go get a basket. It’s more about big picture, not getting stagnant, to your point,” Udoka said. “We can lean on that when we have to. When teams are singularly focused to take certain guys out, we have to have a fallback, whether it’s off-ball actions, post-up actions, some of the things we did tonight and throughout the season and playoffs at times.”

The Celtics made some good adjustments, and they also made some gambles that failed in Game 6. Brown had a phenomenal game attacking, and Al Horford and Smart supplied incredible effort. But a stagnated offense that watches and waits won’t win a title. The Celtics still have another step to take.

“I felt like we kept fighting. But even when we fought and when we got to what felt like striking distance, we would turn the ball over again,” Horford said. “We would do something that was unsound or unsolid.”

Brown and Tatum acknowledged the sheer size of the challenge in the NBA Finals, that taking that last step is harder than anything they’ve faced before. But throughout this series, the Celtics have always felt like they were the ones beating themselves. Udoka said before Game 5 that they should have been up “at least” 3-1 if they’d taken care of things on offense — a perpetually enormous “if” throughout the season.

Before Game 6, he said that if a few things had bounced differently, they could’ve been in a different situation other than with their backs against the wall. That their vibe was business as usual rather than anger. Perhaps they needed that edge, that fervor.

“They won and we lost. We did it to ourselves,” Brown said. “For sure, we had opportunities to go up and win. I guess we’ve shown our immaturity at times, and it stings. Still a young group. Still got a lot to learn. Nothing to hang our head about. Tough day for Boston. Tough day for the Celtics. Yeah, I don’t know what to say.”

Now the Celtics have to learn and grow. Smart said they all made mistakes that could have been prevented, whether it was out of aggressiveness or passivity. There is still a balance to be found, a way to live on that edge without stepping over it. It’s something the Warriors have mastered and the Celtics will need to reach someday. But their journey to this point, their ability to confront their flaws and work through them, is what makes the road ahead so promising for a young team learning from its failures.

“We went through hell to get here. We didn’t play our best basketball, our best series. This is probably our worst series,” Smart said. ”Things we went through to get here showed us what we have to come for us in the future. I think that’s why we’re confident about the future. We all know what the goal is in the future.”


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(Photo of Marcus Smart shooting against the defense of Andrew Wiggins: Kyle Terada / USA Today)

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