One year ago, Al Horford was in basketball purgatory. After a year with the powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers in 2019, Horford had been unceremoniously dumped on the Oklahoma City Thunder, who benched him for the second half of the 2020-21 season. Perhaps that half-season of rest was why, back with the Boston Celtics on the eve of his 36th birthday, Horford led the Celtics with 26 points and six three-pointers in Boston’s 120-108 comeback win over the Golden State Warriors in Game One of the NBA Finals.
The ageless Horford led the way with 11 points on 4-4 shooting in a 40-point Celtics’ 4th quarter that erased a 12-point deficit and blew out the Warriors. Boston hit nine of their twelve three-point attempts for the quarter, while the Warriors made only seven shots, total, in a 40-16 period. Jaylen Brown had ten points in the decisive quarterback and 24 for the game, while new father Derrick White scored 21 off the bench and Marcus Smart went for 18.
Steph Curry set an NBA Finals record by hitting six threes in a 21-point first quarter to start the game, and finished with 34 points, five rebounds, five assists, and three steals. It’s just a shame Mike Breen was still out in the health and safety protocols for ESPN, because we were denied so many “BANG!”s.
But Chef Curry didn’t get enough help from his teammates outside of Andrew Wiggins’ 20 points (and three blocks) and Otto Porter Junior’s four triples off the bench. Porter’s nine points and perfect shooting kept the Warriors alive in a second quarter where no one but OPJ was scoring and the Warriors turned the ball over seven times. It was their usual grab bag of turnovers, this time including a backcourt violation, a step out of bounds, and a palming call on Jordan Poole. Curry followed up his 21-point first with a goose egg in the second. Golden State lost their first home playoff game of the 2021-22 post-season after a 9-0 start, though it was their fourth straight home Finals loss since 2019.
Still, with just seconds remaining in the third quarter, the warriors looked like they had the game in hand. Led by Wiggins scoring from all over the court and fueled by early Boston fouling that led to a 10-10 effort from the free throw line, the Warriors dominated the Celtics after the break. When Andre Iguodala, back after missing a month with neck pain, back pain, rheumatism, lumbago, dropsy, consumption, and the itis, drained a three with six seconds left, the warriors took a 92-78 lead.
But as happens so often with fourth-quarter comebacks, Boston’s clawing back started at the end of the fourth. Iguodala reached in on a flailing Derrick White and gave him two free throws to make it a 12-point lead with 12 minutes to play. And then Steve Kerr began the 4th with his age-defying answer to the death lineup: Young Jordan Poole, flanked by 29-and-over veterans Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Iguodala, and Porter (Happy birthday, Otto!) Call it the Out Of Breath Lineup, because these guys weren’t fast. Jaylen Brown got loose for five quick points and Boston started the quarter on a 9-0 run, seven of those points coming before Kerr broke the glass on the Emergency Curry with 9:35 left in the game.
Poole struggled mightily in this game, scoring nine points and turning the ball over four times, while also being targeted on defense. Much of Boston’s offense early in the 4th was based on the Warriors defense collapsing trying to send help to Poole’s man. Usually Poole makes up for it on offense, but he also tends to struggle when his role changes. You can see why Kerr wanted Iguodala in there to handle the ball with Poole seemingly forgetting how to dribble, but you can also see how that would knock Poole out of his comfort zone. Like when Klay Thompson came back, or Steph Curry came back, or when Gary Payton II started ahead of him…
But Curry did right the ship, for a while. While Boston’s shooting remained red-hot – Celtics not named Jayson Tatum made their first ten shots of the quarter, including their first seven three-pointers – the warriors also scored five possessions in a row. After Curry swiped a Draymond-esque pass from Brown, the real Draymond found Andre for a dunk.
Then Steph found Klay for a three, and then Andre returned the favor for a layup that gave Draymond just his second bucket of the game (he shot 2-12 overall). Despite the Boston shooting with more accuracy than a Bunker Hill musketeer waiting to see the whites of a redcoat’s eyes, a Steph Curry jumper with 6:47 to play gave the Warriors a four-point lead, and Wiggins and Looney came back in for Andre and Draymond. But the Boston bombing continued.
Derrick White hit one of his five three-pointers to cut the lead to one, part of a scorching 11-18 shooting performance from long-range in the last three games. White shot just 31% this season from deep, but that was before he had a baby. As any Fred van Vleet fan knows, the birth of a child during the NBA playoffs automatically turns his father into an honorary Splash Brother – new dad Fred made 16 of 40 threes against the Warriors in the 2019 Finals. The Warriors seemed to encourage White and Horford – who was 6-8 and is shooting 46% from long-range in these playoffs – to shoot threes, and in the 4th, those two made the Warriors pay.
Curry made a layup to bump the lead back up the three, but that would be the last shot the Warriors would make for nearly five minutes. Looney blocked the hapless Tatum, but White followed with a three to tie it. Big Al Horford followed with a three, then knocked away a Draymond pass and hit another three-pointer trailing the play – as the broadcast played audio of Kerr reassuring the Warriors that they just needed to get a stop.
That was during the timeout that followed Horford’s previous three. (Joe Viray has more on that sequence) Draymond followed up his turnover by missing a 30-footer, and while Boston finally missed a triple, so did Curry. It looked like the Warriors had stopped the 11-0 Celtics run when Draymond drew a foul on Big Al, but Dray missed both free throws. Two Marcus Smart threes sandwiching a Draymond offensive foul later, Boston led 117-103 with 1:44 to play, after delivering a 17-0 run at the game’s biggest moment.
Let’s just say it wasn’t the strongest playoff game of Green’s career. He shot 2-12 from the floor, missing all three free throws and all four three-point attempts. Tatum had a terrible shooting game, going 3-17, and somehow Draymond only missed three fewer shots than him, counting free throws. Green did have 11 rebounds and shared the team high of five assists with Curry and, shockingly, Kevon Looney, but he also turned the ball over three times and fouled out after three fourth quarter fouls. Look, he’s still Draymond – the defense was mostly good, and five of those misses came within six feet of the basket – if two go in, it’s a very different game. But some of the choices on defense – and this may be scheme, not Dray – were head-scratching, as if no one on the team had noticed the record-setting number of three-pointers going in.
Boston was guilty of this in the first quarter, where they kept playing drop coverage or simply losing track of Curry on offense. They kept a handle on him much better after that, but the Warriors survived based on quiet contributions from Klay Thompson (15 points, 3/7 from three, no turnovers, a quarter-step slow on closeouts) and a massive offensive rebounding effort from Looney, who had six. Since the end of the Memphis series, the Ground Bound Mound of Rebound is pulling down over five o-rebounds per game, and he’s a fart machine and cheerleader sex scandal away from being prime Dwight Howard.
Gary Payton II, announced as dressed and available, appeared to be just a Light Years Ahead decoy – he wasn’t even shooting in warmups. The team decided to shrink the rotation to eight men for Game One, but the most likely lineup change may involve Moses Moody, who played steady minutes against Dallas with Iguodala and Porter both out. The Warriors might want more athleticism and speed for Game Two, or they might simply want their main guys to look less tired in the fourth quarter going forward. There’s also Nemanja Bjelica – maybe not the best answer to Horford, but who made the Warriors fourth quarter shooting numbers slightly less ugly after a last-minute triple.
The game also featured amazing pace, with only four foul calls in the first quarter and limited timeouts. Bad for ESPN’s ad sales, great for the viewers. Boston’s starters weren’t whistled for a single foul in the entire first half, in fact, while Curry picked up a few touch fouls that sent him to the bench before the end of the second quarter. As usual, Steph got fewer calls than Sean Keane on a Friday night in high school.
Boston has stolen home-court advantage, and the Warriors will have to take four out of six to win their first title in four years. Thankfully, the Draymond-Steph-Klay team has won a road game in every playoff series they’ve ever been in together. The real question is, can they get back to dominating at home? It might be time to break out the big guns – Carlos Santana anthem, Too Short halftime performance, Red Panda balancing plates during timeouts, and a special appearance by Rick Barry yelling at the crowd to give Joe Lacob more respect. Because the Celtics and Al Horford have brought their A game. And it’s too late to get a newborn baby boost.