SAN FRANCISCO — The Boston Celtics used a remarkable comeback to overcome their typically disastrous third quarter in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
They had no such luck in Game 2.
The Golden State Warriors, powered by a 35-14 third-quarter advantage, blew out Boston on Sunday night, winning 107-88 at Chase Center to even up this best-of-seven series at one game apiece. And the Warriors did so by exploiting what has consistently been the Achilles’ heel for Boston throughout these playoffs: poor starts to second halves.
“It’s something we have to fix,” Celtics center Al Horford said.
In the three days between Games 1 and 2, Boston talked repeatedly about the need to avoid another ugly third quarter like the one it had to begin this series, as Golden State’s 38-24 advantage in the third in Game 1 was erased only thanks to the Celtics turning around and having their own improbable fourth quarter.
There was no such comeback, however, in Game 2. Boston shot just 4-for-17 in the third quarter on Sunday and committed five turnovers that became 11 Warriors points. Golden State, meanwhile, went 7-for-12 from 3-point range, as Stephen Curry matched Boston’s point total by himself.
By the time Jordan Poole buried two bombs from way behind the 3-point line inside the final 30 seconds of the third — first hitting a 29-footer before then burying one from nearly the half-court line as the buzzer sounded — the damage had already been done, leaving the formality of the final 12 minutes to be played for Golden State to tie this series up.
“I think tonight, turnovers, and I think sometimes letting our offense affect how we defend, kind of was a little stagnant in the third quarter,” said Jayson Tatum, who led Boston with 28 points in Game 2 but finished a minus-36 — the worst plus-minus of his career. “I feel like it translated on the defensive end, and they got going and hitting shots and things like that.”
It is far from surprising that Boston is struggling in the third quarter, as it has been a sore spot for the Celtics throughout the playoffs. Some numbers to back that up:
Boston now has two of the worst third quarters in this year’s playoffs: Game 1 against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, when the Celtics were outscored by 25; and Golden State’s 21-point edge on Sunday.
The Celtics have been outscored by at least 14 points four times in the third quarter in these playoffs — all of which have come on the road. Three of those games have been Boston’s three road losses in these playoffs (Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Game 1 versus Miami and Game 2 against Golden State). The Celtics’ one win in that situation was Game 1 of this series.
Boston has been outscored by 37 points in the third quarter in these playoffs. And in Game 2 of the Finals, the Celtics had more turnovers (five) in the third quarter than made field goals (four).
The Celtics were 2-for-12 on contested shots in Sunday’s third quarter, per ESPN tracking data, and they are 4-for-22 on contested looks in the third quarter in the Finals. Over the course of the playoffs, Boston is shooting 35.7% on contested shots in the third, which ranks 15th among the 16 teams to participate in the playoffs (only the Toronto Raptors, who lost in the first round, were worse).
There’s a reason, after all, the Celtics said several variations of the same theme over the past couple of days: After saying over and over it’s time to play better in the third quarter, it’s time to actually do so.
Then they proceeded to have their third-quarter history repeat itself.
“Yeah, it’s definitely frustrating,” Celtics guard Derrick White said. “I mean, we’ve talked about it pretty much the whole postseason. It’s easy to talk about, but we’ve got to go out there and change something.
“That was a big quarter for them and really a quarter that put us away.”
Boston’s third-quarter problem wasn’t the only one of the team’s bad habits this postseason to repeat itself. When the Celtics struggle, it’s generally because of turnovers. And in this game, Boston had 21 turnovers that became 33 Warriors points, the second-most points off turnovers in an NBA Finals game in the past 25 years — including 11 live ball turnovers and nine steals.
“That’s been an ongoing theme in the playoffs so far,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “We’ve turned over the ball. Take teams out of scoring against us in the half court, give them some baskets.
“But it was more of the same in that third quarter. We had 11 for 18 points in that first half and gave up five or six more in that quarter. Kind of blew it open, and that hampered our offense, as well.”
Additionally, after Horford, White and Marcus Smart — members of Boston’s supporting cast — combined to hit 15 3-pointers in Game 1, the Celtics made 15 as a team in Game 2. Players not named Tatum or Jaylen Brown went a combined 6-for-19 from deep.
Boston also struggled mightily from 2-point range, going 15-for-43 (34.8%) — and shooting worse on 2s than on 3s.
Mostly, though, the Celtics felt like they squandered an opportunity to put Golden State on life support. They went into the locker room at halftime feeling like they didn’t play well and yet were down by only two points. Then they played even worse in the third, and that was that.
Still, the Celtics do head back to Boston with the series knotted up and home-court advantage successfully secured. Boston knows it has plenty of things to improve if it wants to maintain that advantage and, after dropping two home games to both Milwaukee and Miami over the past two rounds, knows it needs to protect home court this time.
“The past doesn’t matter,” Brown said. “Nothing in the past matters up until this moment, to be honest. Everything that happened in the last series and the series before, who cares.
“Right now, we’re here playing a different opponent, a different team, and we’ve got to look at it as such. We’ve got to come out and play our best version of basketball, because we’re capable of doing it. So we’ve just got to come out and do that.”
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this story.