BOSTON – It all fell apart with just over four minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The Warriors and Celtics were battling for a loose ball in the paint, and it seemed like every player on the court jumped into the scrum.
Bodies were flying everywhere while the refs stood by helplessly. When the fracas finally cleared, Draymond Green had fouled out of the game. Steph Curry lay on the floor, exhausted and clearly hurt. And the Celtics came out with the ball.
Boston just wanted it more.
That was pretty much the story Wednesday night at a raucous TD Garden, where Boston fans serenaded Green throughout the contest with some impressively obscene chants. After two absolute laughers starting off the NBA Finals, the Warriors and Celtics finally got down to some serious basketball, turning in a hard-fought, tightly contested Game 3 that saw Boston prevail, 116-100.
"They beat us to all the 50/50 balls. We just need to match the physicality," said Warriors' center Kevon Looney. “After we got back into it, to start the fourth quarter, we had a few turnovers. They were able to capitalize. It’s a game of runs. (But) it was all the loose balls. Today, we let them get the better of us."
We'd seen flashes of these two evenly matched teams play some extraordinary hoop in those first two games, but both ended with a lopsided score. Game 3's final tally may not have been that close, but make no mistake. This game was tight. Every possession contested. Two heavyweights fighting for their lives.
For a brief moment, in the late third and early fourth quarters, it looked like Golden State might just steal this first game on the road. They took the lead for the first time all night, and Boston looked like it could very well implode again under the weight of careless turnovers and a barrage of long-range bombing from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
But the comeback was more mirage than miracle. The Celtics located their backbones in the final stanza and gave it right back to the visitors.
“It didn’t go well enough, because we lost. It doesn’t matter how many shots you make," said Thompson. "We have a beautiful opportunity Friday to do what we need to do, and that’s win one on the road. We’re not going to overreact. We’ve been in this situation before."
Asked about his fellow Splash Brother, and his health, Thompson expressed some concern about Curry, who was visibly hobbling after the game.
“We need him, if we want to win this thing," said Thompson. "I know Steph will do everything in his power to play. He’s our identity. Without him, it will be very difficult."
Curry sounded optimistic, if a bit dour about having to confront another injury this year.
"There’ll be some pain, but I’ll be alright," said Curry. "I’ll see how it responds. I don’t think I’ll miss a game. Take advantage of these next 48 hours and get ready.”
Former Cal star Jaylen Brown led the charge for the Celtics in Game 3, scoring at will in the first half and finishing with 27 points on 9-of-17 shooting. Marcus Smart finally showed up big for Boston, scoring 24 and playing his usual tenacious defense.
Curry and Thompson carried the load for Golden State, scoring 31 and 25 points, respectively. But it wasn't enough. No one else stepped up to fill the scoring void and the Warriors, as a team, shot only 37 percent from three-point range, hitting just 15 of 40 from beyond the arc.
What went wrong? Nothing catastrophic, as the Warriors actually played well. But these Celtics are very much for real and when they play that tough defense and get a few offensive contributors on track, they'll be tough to beat. Especially at home.
TD Garden lived up to its billing as a premier NBA arena, with a pretty wild fan base. The pregame hysteria was something I hadn't seen before, and I've covered a lot of NBA Finals. The Celtics, their history and their rabid fans will be a tough combination to overcome.
“(The crowd) was not a factor. We’ve played in front of rude people before. Dropping f-bombs with children in the crowd. Real classy, Boston,” said Thompson.
Going into Game 4 Friday, the Warriors will have to figure out how to get more people involved on offense. Another loss will put Golden State down three games to one, which is an extremely deep hole. Green will have to manage his temper, which finally boiled over when he got called for that sixth foul following the loose ball scrum. Hopefully Curry didn't sustain an injury. And Steve Kerr might need to take another look at this rotation. Otto Porter Jr. gave Golden State quality minutes off the bench Wednesday night. But who else?
Jordan Poole scored 10 points in 24 minutes. And Gary Payton II was a non-factor in his second game back since recovering from a fractured elbow.
Bottom line? This has developed into a great series. The right two teams are fighting for the championship. And it's just that. A flat-out brawl that is bringing out the best in both teams. Kerr put it best, as usual.
"That's kind of the beauty of the game. It's a five-man game and players have to work together. When there's a rhythm and a flow to the game and a group gets going, there's a real feeling, a real beauty to it," he said. "It's not easy to do in the playoffs when you're playing the best defensive teams and the game is at its most physical. But at the same time, your opponent brings out the best in you. When you play the best, it forces you to be your best ... where both teams have really been playing at a high level, and that's the whole idea. Competition, two teams bringing the best out in one another."
The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to email@example.com. Sign up for his weekly newsletter here. And follow him on Twitter @alsaracevic.