BOSTON – After Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Boston Celtics center Robert Williams attended his postgame news conference dressed in a T-shirt with the face of bruising Hall of Fame player Dennis Rodman printed on it.
It was fitting attire after a game in which the Celtics had banged into the Golden State Warriors and sent them skittering across the court, in which they wrested rebounds and loose balls away from them. At times, Golden State looked disheveled and tired when its players smacked into the bigger, more athletic, younger Celtics.
“We want to try to impose our will and size in this series,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said.
Game 3, on Wednesday night, was the first finals game in Boston since 2010, and the Celtics made a statement, playing with edge to earn a 2-1 series lead over Golden State with a 116-100 win. Boston will also host Game 4 on Friday night.
It has been a series marked by toughness: The team able to exhibit more of it has been able to win each of the first three games.
“If we were going to come out here and play, the last thing when we left that court, we didn’t want to say we weren’t physical enough,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “It worked out for us.”
Statistically, that physical play manifested itself in several ways Wednesday night.
It showed in the rebounding – Boston grabbed 16 more rebounds than Golden State. Williams had 10, as well as four of the Celtics’ seven blocks.
“There’s a play early in the fourth, I got by Grant Williams and thought I had daylight to get a shot up, and you underestimate how athletic he was and how much he could bother that shot,” Golden State guard Stephen Curry said.
Williams has been inconsistent this series because of a knee injury that has bothered him throughout the playoffs. Williams had surgery on his left knee in March but aggravated it during the Celtics’ Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks. On Wednesday, he felt good enough to give Boston a lift.
“They’ve been killing us on the glass this whole series,” Williams said. “Wanted to just put an emphasis on it.”
The Celtics’ physical play also showed in their ability to score inside. They outscored Golden State 52-26 in the paint.
“It was just us being us, just continuing to drive the ball and try to find a great shot for our teammates and ourselves,” Smart said. “This Warrior team does a very good job of helping each other out on their defensive end. They’re going to make you have to make the right play every single time, and if you don’t, they’re going to make you pay.”
Although Golden State is known for an offense that can be mesmerizing to watch, it was impressive on defense during its dynastic run from 2015-19. That returned this season – the only team with a better defensive rating than Golden State has been Boston.
In the finals, the Celtics have used their size to widen the gap between the teams.
The Celtics won Game 1 120-108 and showed Golden State’s players they would need to be more physical if they meant to compete.
Golden State trailed early in Game 2 as well, and that was the crux of the halftime conversation. The players knew that the only way to match Boston was to match its intensity, despite being smaller at most positions. With that in mind, Golden State outscored Boston 41-14 in that third quarter and won 107-88.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of strategic change,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said after Game 2. “You know, a couple tweaks here and there. The preparation was mostly about our intensity and physicality.”
In Game 3, the Celtics reclaimed that edge.
“We had to,” Smart said of the physical play with which Boston dominated Golden State. “Game 2, they brought the heat to us. For us, that left a bad taste in our mouth because what we hang our hat on is effort on the defensive end and being a physical team.”
Golden State couldn’t match it, not for long enough anyway.
Golden State has outscored Boston by 43 points in the third quarter this series, and took an 83-82 lead in Game 3 on a 3-pointer by Curry. That basket had followed a quick stretch of seven points without Boston gaining possession. Curry was fouled shooting a 3-pointer, and since the foul was flagrant, Golden State got the ball back and scored another 3.
But as the quarter closed, Golden State’s grip on the game slipped.
“Take the hits, keep fighting,” Williams said was the message in the huddle after the third quarter. “Obviously, they’re a great team that goes on runs, a lot of runs, but just withstanding the hit.”
Golden State couldn’t get through the defense, nor could it stop the Celtics from grabbing second chances. Hustle plays typically went to Boston.
At one point in the fourth quarter, several players tangled over a loose ball, and Smart came up with it before Draymond Green pushed him. It was Green’s sixth foul, and the crowd jeered at him after having spent the evening chanting curses at him.
Golden State’s Klay Thompson complained about fans swearing with “children in the crowd.”
“Real classy. Good job, Boston,” he said.
Green said the chants didn’t bother him. What bothered him more, he said, was that he played “soft.”
He was a catalyst for Golden State’s more physical play in Game 2, but he was ineffective in Game 3.
He said his final foul came when he was trying to get players off Curry, whom he heard screaming at the bottom of a pile. Curry stayed in the game but said afterward that he had pain in one of his feet.
It is among the many bruises Golden State will have to manage after a Game 3 loss that challenged its toughness. The Celtics shoved over Golden State’s beautiful brand of basketball, leaving Curry and his teammates searching for ways to get back up.