Celtics take 2-1 lead in NBA Finals in Game 3 win over Warriors

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BOSTON — Al Horford took a one-step drop, cocked the basketball behind his right ear and fired a cross-court laser that hit Jaylen Brown in stride, with nothing but daylight between the all-star guard and the rim.

On a night that saw the Golden State Warriors mount a furious rally in an attempt to steal a game they had no business winning, Brown’s uncontested dunk was one indication, among many, that the Boston Celtics had the requisite focus and opportunism to reclaim control of the NBA Finals.

TD Garden had waited 12 years since it last hosted the Finals, and the crowd’s pent-up energy was evident from before tip-off. Former Celtics Bill Walton, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker cheered on their former team and egged on the crowd, which donned green T-shirts that read “It’s all about 18” — the franchise’s drive for a record 18th championship — and spent good chunks of the evening chanting profanities at Warriors forward Draymond Green. Though Golden State made things interesting with another signature third-quarter push, Brown and Jayson Tatum powered Boston to a 116-100 Game 3 victory on Wednesday to take a 2-1 series lead.

The Celtics and Warriors have spent much of this series playing past each other rather than meeting head-on. After exchanging double-digit wins in the first two games, Boston quickly built an 18-point lead in the second quarter. Brown was the driving force early. He buried his first jumper, maneuvered to the rim multiple times and scored 17 of his team-high 27 points in a magnificent first quarter.

“I feel like I can get by any defender in front of me,” Brown said. “Our team is in a position to win some games and do something special. Coming out and putting our best foot forward is what we’ve got to do.”

The Garden’s bad blood toward Green, who seemed to psych out the Celtics in Game 2, took a back seat early to Boston’s crisp play. The Celtics rekindled their offensive rhythm, using their aggressive drive-and-kick style to keep the Warriors’ defense guessing. To make matters worse for Golden State, Stephen Curry had his typical rotation disrupted by early foul trouble.

“We loved the start,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said. “From a strictly physical standpoint, we matched their intensity better than last game. [Our focus] was really to keep our composure and not get sped up. Our spacing was much better tonight. Guys were being patient. The second-chance points and offensive rebounding were huge for us.”

The Celtics coasted into halftime with a 12-point lead, but they faced a big test shortly after intermission. Golden State had outscored Boston in the third quarter by 14 points in Game 1 and by 21 points in Game 2, and it came out firing with nothing to lose in Game 3.

“It’s on our minds heavy,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “We talk about it. All year, it’s been a little shaky for us in the third quarters. But we find a way to counterbalance that and come out with a victory.”

In an improbable stretch that elicited gasps and groans from the Garden crowd, the Warriors ran off a 12-0 run late in the third quarter, including a sequence in which they scored seven points in 13 seconds. With just over five minutes remaining in the period, Curry drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key. As Curry descended, Horford slid into his landing zone while attempting to contest the shot, an action that drew a flagrant foul upon the official’s review. Curry made the free throw, the Warriors retained possession, and reserve forward Otto Porter Jr. hit another three-pointer.

While the sharp momentum turn sparked memories of Golden State’s runaway showing in the second half of Game 2, Boston steadied itself at the start of the fourth quarter, turning over the keys to the offense to Tatum, who scored eight of his 26 points in the final period, and Smart, who added 24 points and hit a pair of three-pointers in the fourth quarter.

The Warriors, meanwhile, shot just 5 for 15 in the fourth quarter and finished the night with 17 turnovers, wilting down the stretch against an energized Celtics defense. By closing out the win, Boston improved to 7-0 after a loss during this postseason.

“Just ride it out,” Horford said of Golden State’s third-quarter run. “Jayson and Smart did a great job of staying composed down the stretch. That could have gone south quickly. The energy from our fans was just contagious. They stayed with us. We didn’t panic, and we continued to play.”

Aside from another strong night from Curry, who scored a game-high 31 points, little went right for the Warriors, who were outrebounded 47-31 and outscored in the paint 52-26. Green finished with two points and four rebounds, and he fouled out in 35 minutes. His sixth foul drew perhaps the loudest ovation of the night.

“[The fans] were just talking,” Green said. “Not really my job to react to them. They did what I expected. I played like s—. I never found a rhythm on both ends of the floor.”

Golden State did welcome a breakthrough performance from Klay Thompson, who struggled in the first two games of the series. Despite missing his first three shots, Thompson finished with 25 points and made five three-pointers, one day after telling reporters he had searched his own YouTube highlights in an effort to snap his slump. Together, Curry and Thompson converted 11 of their 24 three-point attempts to make Boston sweat.

Even so, the night ended on a potentially sour note for the Warriors as Horford landed on Curry’s left leg during a scramble for a loose ball with four minutes remaining in the game. Curry stayed on the court and appeared to be in some pain, but Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said that the extent of a possible injury wouldn’t be known until Thursday.

“I’ll be all right,” said Curry, who sprained his left foot in a March game against the Celtics on a similar fight for a loose ball and was sidelined for a month. “I got caught underneath Al. Obviously, it will be some pain, but I’ll be all right. It was the same thing I did against Boston in the regular season, but not as bad.”

Through three games, Boston has yet to find itself in a possession game late against Golden State, and it almost certainly will need to outexecute the more experienced Warriors in the clutch to secure the franchise’s first title since 2008. When it mattered in Game 3, the Celtics channeled plenty of poise, smothering the Warriors’ supporting cast and outlasting their hot-shooting stars.

“Earlier in the season, we would have given up leads and lost games like that,” Tatum said. “Things happen. [The Warriors are] a great team. They’re going to make shots. It’s all about how you respond. We didn’t hold our heads. We made winning plays.”

Fittingly, it was Brown who delivered the knockout blow, swatting a Thompson shot out of bounds in the game’s closing minutes. As the final buzzer sounded, Celtics executive Mike Zarren walked off the parquet court with two fingers above his head, shouting to the relieved crowd: “Two more!”

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