BOSTON – Throughout the NBA playoffs, especially the conference and NBA Finals, Boston coach Ime Udoka has mentioned the Celtics have had to win some series the hard way.
Down 3-2 against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics had to win on the road in Game 6 and win Game 7 at home. Up 3-2 against Miami in the conference semifinals, Boston failed to finish the series at home in six games and had to win Game 7 on the road.
“Feels like it was always meant to be this way, difficult,” Udoka said earlier in the playoffs.
And in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against Golden State on Friday, the Celtics had a chance at home to seize control of Finals with a victory and a 3-1 series lead.
That didn’t happen. Golden State tied the series at 2-2 with a 107-97 victory, and once again the complexion of the series changed.
The Celtics had a 94-90 lead in the fourth quarter and failed to finish the job.
“We don’t do this (expletive) on purpose,” Celtics star Jayson Tatum said, “I promise you, we don’t. We trying as hard as we can. … But it’s the Finals. The art of competition, they came here feeling like they had to win. It wasn’t easy. I think that’s kind of the beauty of it, that it’s not going to be easy. It shouldn’t be.
“We know we both want it and we got to go take it.”
The Celtics learned how difficult it is to reach the Finals, and are now learning how hard it is to win a championship and how challenging it is to vanquish a team playing in its sixth Finals in eight seasons, that has won three titles and has one of the greatest players of all-time in Steph Curry.
Curry had a game-high 43 points on Friday – the second-highest scoring output of his Finals career. Klay Thompson called the performance Curry’s greatest in the Finals, given the stakes.
“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Boston star Jaylen Brown said. “He’s been here before. He had it rolling tonight. Big performance by him. But we have to do a better job of containing. It’s tough. It’s hard. But we know. We never said it was supposed to be easy.”
The Warriors regained home-court advantage, and while both teams have won on the road, any team prefers a Game 7 at home than on the road.
After the game the Celtics talked about playing better. But Boston didn’t cough up Game 4 as much as Golden State won it with offensive and defensive execution in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.
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The Warriors outscored the Celtics 17-3 in the final 4:55, and Boston was just 1-for-8 from the field – just 1-for-7 on 3-pointers. Golden State forced missed shots and turnovers and was 5-for-7 from the field with two big 3s from Curry and Thompson.
“A lot of times it felt like we were standing around, unsure of who we were trying to go after, and it led to those stalled-down possessions,” Udoka said.
Experience was a big storyline heading into the Finals. Boston rendered the topic meaningless in the first three games, but in late-game situations in a close game – and this was the best and tightest game of the series – experience matters. Golden State coach Steve Kerr made the right substitutions, even sitting Draymond Green during a key stretch, and Curry, Thompson, Green and Andrew Wiggins made winning plays.
Boston has responded after losses in the postseason – it is 7-0 after a defeat. The Celtics played in back-and-forth series ever since sweeping Brooklyn in the first round. They watch video, practice and come back with a better performance.
The resiliency is impressive.
“You’d like to take the easier route,” Udoka said. “We had our chances … It’s not only solely dependent on one team. It’s a championship-caliber opponent that’s not going to lay down. They made some tough shots, but also guarded well at the end.
“As much as we’d like to do better on our own, you’ve got to give them credit for how they stepped up defensively. Miami is a team that we went and did it against. We’ve proven we can do it, being down two games, two elimination games to Milwaukee. That’s proof that we can do it.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA Finals: Warriors show Celtics how hard it is to win a title