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SAN FRANCISCO — The Golden State Warriors weren’t just in need of a win to tie up the NBA Finals, but in desperate need of something resounding to send a message to the “we don’t care, we keep coming” Boston Celtics.
They needed to show they could penetrate the Celtics’ psyche on the floor and off it, that pressure could be applied and maintained for extended stretches until the Celtics cracked.
Be it emotionally, physically or practically — because if they didn’t, they would face the prospect of falling down 3-1 before seeing home turf again.
The result in Game 2 was predictable, a 107-88 win at Chase Center, but the how was impressive, and telling.
The Celtics haven’t shown they can handle prosperity, coming into Sunday 2-5 in games after wins following the first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets. The Warriors have gone undefeated following losses in the playoffs, often responding with bluster.
The Warriors repeatedly talked about playing with force and making the physical Celtics deal with matters on those terms as opposed to the leisurely stroll they had in the series opener. Boston has more paths to win this series, with its size up front and shot-making from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown enough to make the best teams succumb in a seven-game competition.
But the Warriors displayed perhaps the best path resides in their ability to tap into the Celtics’ vulnerabilities, tap dance on their last nerves and make them revert to their worst possible impulses.
The 18 turnovers were ghastly, eye-rolling and negated some of the gains the Celtics were due to make in a series that has them favored in so many technical ways. But it was intentional from the other side.
It’s easier to absorb Tatum’s 28 points and Brown’s 17 when the Celtics shoot 37.5% and Al Horford disappeared after a premier showing Thursday night.
“We knew we had to come with a better focus and sense of aggression, and I thought that started right from the beginning,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I think turnovers are often a byproduct of physicality and intensity. Draymond [Green] had plenty to do with that, so did Gary [Payton II], so did Wiggs [Andrew Wiggins]."
The 41-12 run that turned a tie game into a 29-point spread in the fourth quarter wasn’t necessarily inevitable, but Green and these suddenly ornery Warriors were on the right current from the game’s start, forcing turnovers and being able to sustain Tatum hitting everything deep.
Green was switched onto Brown and began to chip away, of course earning a technical foul for his troubles — the cost of doing business, he would probably say.
“It wasn’t just me on Jaylen Brown, it was across the board,” Green said. “If I just pick up my force and no one else does, it doesn’t work.
“It’s my job. Steph Curry sets the tone on the offensive side of the ball, it’s my job to set the tone from the defensive side of the ball. And I wanted to do that from the very beginning of the game.”
Sooner or later, the Celtics would implode, and it was Curry who applied the screws in the third quarter. Curry’s greatness is required in a different way than in championships past, because as he noted, the construction of this team is different from any other that’s hoisted up the gold trophy at the end.
But he has to be more precise — because of his age and what other scoring options this team doesn’t possess consistently.
And when he saw that small bit of light peering out from the Celtics sideline, he pounced. Fourteen of his game-high 29 points came in the third — attacking the relentless Celtics when they took a breath to gather themselves.
Unlike in Game 1, starting out on fire, Curry was reading and allowing the game to come to him. The space was there for Klay Thompson and Wiggins to assert themselves while Curry waited on his chance to produce the greatness that’ll be required nightly.
“There’s definitely a need for me to be aggressive throughout the game, to create, draw attention, get shots up and continue to apply pressure,” Curry said. “It’s gone well. I don’t know what it will look like on the road, rest of the series.”
Jordan Poole has more subtle pressure than anyone, considering how explosive he can be and how much a second shot creator can put stress on the Celtics. He was arguably shaky until the last minute of the third when he became Boston’s worst nightmare — back-to-back triples, the last a buzzer-beater a step inside halfcourt.
Poole hasn’t had consecutive bad games in these playoffs, so it seems he took a game to acclimate himself to the new opponent, new expectations and his own importance in this series.
Getting used to the intensity, the desperation of the moment and the Celtics’ style of play took a day — the Dallas Mavericks, they are not.
Marcus Smart and Brown were a bit on the chippy side, an expected development, a welcomed one, too.
“That just comes with the territory. It’s a competitive edge,” Poole told Yahoo Sports after scoring 17 in 22 minutes. “At this point, whatever we can do to get a win. Whether it’s getting into someone’s head, bumping them early, hitting the ball out of their hands, not letting them get a shot up after a whistle. All the small things matter, it’s the highest stage. Whatever competitive edge you can get, you gotta take that.”
Gary Payton II kept poking in his return from an elbow injury, bouncing around like a toddler who discovered Pixy Stix for the first time. He perched himself into Tatum’s personal space, and Wiggins kept being that annoying gnat that wouldn’t go away, only leaving Tatum to tend to other help duties.
Payton adds an element of annoyance matched only by Green, and subtly aided by Poole. Payton was left open for a corner three and connected, saying afterward he was running on adrenaline, unable to feel pain as his elbow was wrapped and iced heavily postgame.
“Last week I knew I was very close,” said Payton, who scored seven points and was a plus-15 in 25 minutes. “So it was just anticipation and just antsy, ready to get out there.”
The Warriors were as loose as a team could be in the days leading to Game 2, completely aware of how they blew Game 1 and not unnerved by the talent coming out of the East.
They aren’t the vintage Warriors, but they know themselves and dynamics as well as any of their other title teams. They know their fatal flaws, but most of all, they know yours, too.