In case this beautiful game at TD Garden Thursday night was an offering, Ye Gods of Basketball, heck yes, we’ll take this as the NBA Finals matchup this June. We know the Warriors will be there, barring cruel catastrophe. And, shoot, it’s easy to believe this morning that the revamped and reloaded Celtics might be too. Just imagine what new Boston favorite Kyrie Irving and his kid sidekicks Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum might be capable of then.
Heck, what they’re capable of now, all of these Celtics, 16 games in to this new season, feels like a fever dream. Brown fueled a 19-0 run in the third quarter, Irving scored 11 points in a take-charge superstar performance in the fourth quarter, and Tatum iced it with a pair of free throws as the Celtics extended their winning streak to 14 games with a 92-88 victory over the champion Golden State Warriors. The Celtics shot just 33 percent, yet outscored the Warriors 43-22 over the game’s final 16 minutes and 49 seconds. Excuse me while I spend Friday watching this on an endless loop.
I’m not sure there has been a more anticipated regular-season game at the Garden since … well, probably since Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen were first united as superfriends in 2007. That season opener in 2012 — with LeBron James making his Cavaliers debut and Shaquille O’Neal premiering during a too-short cameo in Celtics green — was a massive deal. So was the Warriors’ December visit two years ago, when they arrived with a 23-0 record and left with a double-overtime victory and a new respect for the Celtics.
Last night was different from those. The anticipation this time was amplified, justified, and finally fulfilled. Had the Celtics’ streak ended Thursday night — and there were multiple stretches where it appeared almost certain it would, including two separate 17-point deficits — it would have registered as a disappointment, but an affirming and encouraging one. But now that they won? And how they won? And how many now that they’ve won in a row? Go ahead, help me find context for pure exhilaration.
As a certain Celtics champion once told us, “Anything is possible.’’ But Kevin Garnett told us that after the challenge was completed and the trophy collected. These Celtics are making us believe anything is possible in their future, and that future is much nearer than we ever would have believed just a few weeks ago.
The Celtics were fell into their second 17-point hole (66-49) with 4 minutes and 59 seconds left in the third quarter. With 1 minute, 22 seconds left in the same frame, the game was tied (66-66). A Tatum finger roll in the final minute put them up 2, capping a 19-0 run against arguably the best single-team collection of offensive talent in NBA history.
The Celtics, whose best player is 25 years old, whose second-best player is recovering from a broken leg, whose third-best player is called average by microphone-wielding, hair-replacement-pushing human wind instruments, and whose fourth- and fifth-best players are 19 and 21 years old, dropped 19 straight points on the NBA champion Warriors to seize victory from a team that barely remembers how to lose.
Early, the Warriors did what champions do on the road against a wannabe challenger. They sucked all of the suspense out of the building, deflated all anticipation, and made you wonder what it was you were looking forward to.
The Warriors led 28-18 after the first quarter despite the sense that the Celtics were playing relentlessly on defense. The Celtics chipped away, getting it to 32-27 on a Terry Rozier 3-pointer, but then the Warriors went all Warriors. With Shaun Livingston directing the offense – how I wish the Celtics were among the several teams that gave him a look during the long grind back from his knee injury – the Warriors ran off 12 straight points to go up 44-27 with just over 6 minutes left in the second quarter.
The Warriors’ casual dominance might have left Celtics fans pleading for nothing more than a whisper of hope. A little run, a chance to cut the margin to 8, or maybe even 6, before halftime. Something to allow the anticipation to survive into the second half.
Just when it seemed like the Warriors would refuse to allow it, Jaylen Brown hit the turbo button. Of all of the young Celtics, he’s the one I figured might struggle the most against the Warriors. (Excluding Marcus Smart, whom I’m starting to wish would forget shooting is allowed. Did he ever dog Curry, though, holding him to 9 points.) Brown is as athletic as a Wilkins brother, and he’s tightened up his game to a remarkable degree in his second season, but the Warriors have a way of grounding electric young players who can be overwhelmed by the champs’ precision and poise.
Instead, Brown jolted them. He knocked down a 3-pointer off a pass from Kyrie Irving on a 4-on-2 break (it’s a different world, old timer), then followed with a hustle put-back of his own blocked corner 3-pointer. Sticking with turbo mode on defense, too, he blocked a Klay Thompson dunk attempt (with help from the rim), which turned into a pair of Al Horford free throws and a five-point game. The Warriors led, 47-42, at the half.
The Warriors didn’t mess around in the third, riding seven points from Kevin Durant to that 66-49 lead, their second 17-point margin Then, somehow, Brown went to a next level that was better than he previous next level; call it turbo-turbo. Brown hit a jumper at 4:06 to make it 66-53. Then a 3 – 66-56. Then another 3 – 66-59. He scored 8 of his team-high 22 points in a span of 51 seconds. We found out only after the game that Brown played the game engulfed in sadness – his best friend died Wednesday night.
The Celtics didn’t stop there. Neither did the drama. The score was tied at 68-68 entering the fourth. The Warriors, agitated now and chirping at every referee’s whistle, did not relent. When Curry got free and splashed a 3-pointer to put the Warriors up, 81-78 with 4:59 left, a certain Globe columnist emeritus sitting to my right turned to me and said, ‘’Well, I’m satisfied,’’ the implication being that the Warriors were going to secure the actual victory while the Celtics could find some pride in a moral victory. I felt the same way. Breaking hearts on the road is what the Warriors do. It’s what champions do.
Then Kyrie Irving delivered the delightful reminder: He’s a champion, too, and by his own hand. Irving hit the winning shot in Curry’s face to clinch the title for Cleveland two years ago. He’s an official Warriors nuisance, and Thursday night he did what only the rarest of superstars can do. He took command of the game down the stretch on a night when his shot wasn’t falling.
Irving’s basket plus a foul put the Celtics up 86-85. With 14 seconds left, Irving, who earlier in the game ditched the mask designed to protect a broken bone in his face, gave them the lead for good, hitting a pair of free throws for a 90-88 advantage. He was 7 of 7 from the line down the stretch. The delirious masses who were chanting “M-V-P, M-V-P’’ may have had a point.
The Celtics have won 14 in a row. They just knocked down the chant. Sure, it’s only November. But darned if this remarkable team doesn’t dare you to dream about June.