The Celtics prove ready for a fight in a comeback statement win over the Warriors

Ball Don't Lie
Celtics swingman <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5602/" data-ylk="slk:Jaylen Brown">Jaylen Brown</a> brought a level of physicality and aggression that <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4612/" data-ylk="slk:Stephen Curry">Stephen Curry</a> and the Warriors had a hard time matching. (AP)
Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown brought a level of physicality and aggression that Stephen Curry and the Warriors had a hard time matching. (AP)

Before tipoff of the most anticipated game of the 2017-18 NBA season to date — a marquee matchup between the West-leading Golden State Warriors and the East-leading Boston Celtics — TNT analyst Charles Barkley made two promises.

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Those turned out about as well as the whole “Vegetarians aren’t real” thing.

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After falling behind by double-digits in the first quarter, going down by 17 in the second, and again by 17 with 4:59 to go in the third quarter, the Celtics refused to yield. Boston cranked up its No. 1-ranked defense to stifle Golden State’s No. 1-ranked offense, crawled back into the game with a hellacious 19-0 third quarter run, and forced the visitors into a hard-nosed, physical street fight. The visitors were game, but the hosts took over late, outlasting the defending NBA champions 92-88 in a tense, hard-fought, dynamite game that extended the Celtics’ NBA-best winning streak to 14 straight games.

We’ll start here: the Celtics do not win without a heroic two-way effort from Jaylen Brown. In a game featuring former Most Valuable Players and NBA Finals MVPs, multiple-time All-Stars and decorated veterans, the second-year swingman out of Cal at times looked like the best player on the floor.

Playing with a heavy heart one day after the death of his close friend Trevin Steede, Brown turned in the best game of his NBA career. The 6-foot-7 wing muscled up Golden State’s scorers, used his quick hands to disrupt dribbles and passing lanes, attacked the glass, ran the floor and confidently knocked down long-range shots.

Brown played with a fire and force that seemed to take the Warriors off guard, leading the Celtics with 22 points on 7-for-18 shooting to go with seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 34 minutes while spending time guarding Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and anyone else Brad Stevens needed him to go check. After the game, an “extremely emotional” Brown spoke to the media about the challenge of finding a way to keep himself together so soon after losing his friend.

“My best friend passed last night,” Brown said. “It was tough to accept it. Everybody was kind of in shock. But I knew, coming in today, that he would’ve wanted me to play. It kind of was hard getting my thoughts together, but after talking to his mom and his family, they inspired me to come out and play. Because I wasn’t in any shape to come out. I didn’t want to leave my room. But they inspired me to come out and play, and I came out and played in his spirit. My teammates held me up, and we pulled it out.”

As impressive as Boston had been during its streak coming into Thursday, the Warriors had an argument for being the hotter team entering the game. Golden State had won its last seven games by a combined 139 points behind a defense that, as head coach Steve Kerr put it, was “finally ready to play,” and an incinerating offense that seemed to be firing on all cylinders. After putting up 28 points in the first 12 minutes, though, the engine seized, with the Celtics’ combination of length, youth, athleticism and physicality pressuring the Warriors’ ball-handlers and shooters all over the floor.

In his return from a thigh contusion that kept him out Monday against the Orlando Magic, Curry turned in his worst game in an awfully long time, front-rimming jumpers on his way to just nine points on 3-for-14 shooting. The two-time MVP battled foul trouble, a lack of rhythm and dogged tracking from the likes of Brown, Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier and, in the late stages of the contest, Marcus Smart.

The Celtics spark plug continued his confounding start to the season, scoring one point on 1-for-7 shooting with three turnovers, while also pulling down seven rebounds, dishing three assists, snagging two steals, blocking one shot and wearing Curry out late in the game. Despite Smart’s awful individual offensive game, the Celtics outscored the Warriors by a whopping 19 points in his 30 minutes and 35 seconds of floor time.

Curry wasn’t alone in his offensive struggles. Running buddy Klay Thompson needed 18 shots to score his 13 points. The Celtics gave Draymond Green acres of space to shoot or create whenever he got the ball, and he did little of either, scoring 11 points on 3-for-11 shooting and undercutting his five assists with four turnovers. Only Durant (24 points on 9-for-18 shooting) was able to get unstuck, and even that took until midway through the third quarter.

Golden State shot just 40.2 percent from the floor and 10-for-32 from the 3-point line as a team, and went through some prolonged droughts — coughing up a 15-3 run late in the first half, and scoring only two points in the final 4:59 of the third quarter, including a string of nine straight possessions on which they either missed a shot or turned the ball over — that gave the Celtics life and allowed them to chop down double-digit deficits.

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The Celtics needed to feed off their defense, because they found themselves struggling with Golden State’s length and versatility, too.

Even after a visit from the champs, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4840/" data-ylk="slk:Kyrie Irving">Kyrie Irving</a> and the Celtics are still making noise. (Getty)
Even after a visit from the champs, Kyrie Irving and the Celtics are still making noise. (Getty)

Kyrie Irving, playing once again in the face mask he so clearly hates before ditching it with eight minutes left in the third quarter despite still having a broken face, missed eight of his first 10 shots, entering the fourth quarter with only five points on the ledger. Stud rookie Jayson Tatum had a whisper-quiet five of his own, seeming shell-shocked after the jarring experience of having to guard Durant in the early going. Only Brown’s bursts kept Boston in the fight, as the C’s as a team shot just 32.9 percent from the field and 7-for-32 from deep.

Well, Brown’s bursts and plenty of trips to the charity stripe. The Celtics fought their way to 38 free throws, making 33, to 19 for Golden State (of which they made 12).

The freebies were especially important down the stretch. Irving scored seven of his 11 fourth-quarter points (out of 16 in the game) at the line to carry Boston late. Tatum bounced back from his first real bit of adversity as a pro to come through late, scoring five of his seven fourth-quarter points (out of 12 total) at the line, including a pair of clutch free throws that put Boston up by four with 6.7 seconds remaining to ice the win.

If you’re thinking that a 19-attempt swing seems like a pretty big deal in what wound up being a four-point game, well, you might’ve fit in just fine in the losing locker room after this one.

“We got called for 24 fouls,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Well, it was actually 23, because the last one wasn’t a foul.”

The one Kerr’s talking about: a foul on a drive by Irving with the score tied at 88 and 20.2 seconds left:

Irving shook Green at the top of the key, worked his way into the teeth of the Warriors’ defense, somehow slithered through three defenders, got the ball on the backboard and got the foul. The Warriors protested, but Irving stepped to the line and knocked them down, giving the C’s a lead.

“But, you know, that’s petty on my part,” Kerr added after his not-really-a-joke. “We committed a lot of silly fouls.”

Most notably Curry, who picked up his third and fourth fouls in the first four minutes of the second half, short-circuiting any chance he’d have of trying to find his flow after a stilted opening half.

“We missed shots and weren’t able to set up our defense” during the Celtics’ third-quarter run, Curry said. “Jaylen Brown hit some big shots, some timely shots. And they got to the free throw line. That was the difference at the end of the third, end of the fourth. Whether we agreed with the calls or not, that’s how it kind of went down. That’s what gave them easy points and slowed the tempo down so that they could set up their defense. That was the difference.”

The Warriors still had a chance to get level after Kyrie’s pair. A quick inbounds pass to Durant along the baseline produced a clean look at a turnaround fadeaway jumper — sort of a curious call, perhaps, but an open shot for their only hot shooter on the night — but it came up short, and so too did Golden State, as a very-much-for-real defense kept the Celtics red hot and streaking.

“Our guys are locked in and really trying,” Stevens said after the game. “We can play some ugly basketball at times, but I do think we’re competing.”

And if they keep it up, maybe we can see some more of this particular brand of ugly basketball in Boston come summertime.

“They’re playing the best right now in the East,” said Curry, who then stated the obvious — that the Celtics will still have to prove they can beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the postseason before booking passage to the NBA Finals. “I heard the weather’s great here in June, so we’ll see.”

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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