6 takeaways as Jayson Tatum, Celtics struggle in Finals rematch vs. Warriors

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“We never want to lose, and we’ve been playing well, and to lose this one — especially the way we played — was tough,” Tatum said.

Boston Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) drives to the basket against Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez) The Associated Press

The Celtics fell to the Warriors 123-117 on Saturday evening in a disappointing Finals rematch, dropping to 21-6 this season.

Here are the takeaways. 

1. A big Jayson Tatum game seemed likely when the Warriors announced Andrew Wiggins would be out Saturday. 

Instead, the Celtics’ MVP candidate submitted a sandpaper-rough performance, perhaps his worst of the season. He shot just 6-for-21 from the field including 2-for-9 from behind the arc and 4-for-7 from the free-throw line.

Tatum’s first play was a harbinger — a nice cut to the rim, which nearly freed him for an easy layup. Klay Thompson, however, appeared out of nowhere and swatted it off the glass. A minute later, Tatum tried to go 1-on-1 with Kevon Looney at the rim, and Looney made the shot uncomfortable enough to force the miss.

Tatum never really recovered. He missed seven 3-pointers and even a pair of free throws in the fourth quarter that could have cut the lead to six for one final push with 5:02 remaining. The Celtics’ regular rotation scored just two more points the rest of the way, as the Warriors rattled off a 14-2 run. 

“Man I missed a lot of layups,” Tatum told reporters. “Got two fouls early in the first quarter. Missed some threes. They are a good team. Obviously, we’ve got some history with them. They’ve been playing better as for late, and they are a well-balanced, talented team on both ends. They make it tough on you. 

“I think maybe my touch was off. A lot of easy ones I missed made it tough tonight.”

It’s possible Tatum just missed a couple of early layups and tried to shoot himself back into rhythm unsuccessfully. But Saturday’s struggles resurrected some ghosts Celtics fans hoped had dissipated into the ether. 

2. Defending Steph Curry is, of course, kind of like trying to slow a flood, but the Celtics could have built a better dam. He hit his first 3-pointer with two minutes left in the first quarter when the Celtics lost him in transition. The second was a step-back from 30 feet over Sam Hauser as the quarter buzzer rang. 

Then Curry exploited the Celtics’ pick-and-roll defense. He ran around a screen by Looney and got himself set as quickly as possible, baiting Malcolm Brogdon into a collision that gave the Warriors a four-point play. Right before the half, the Celtics’ pick-and-roll defense broke down against Curry again. At the start of the third, Smart got hung up on a Looney screen and had to go under, and Curry buried another. Finally, he caught Jaylen Brown in the PnR and essentially put the game away late in the fourth. 

Curry finished with 32 points on 12-for-21 shooting, while Klay Thompson poured in a game-high 34. Jordan Poole started in place of Wiggins and dropped 20. That’s tough math to solve for an opponent.

3. Jaylen Brown tends to play well against the Warriors, and Saturday was no exception — he finished with 31 points on 13-for-23 shooting and kept them alive in the first half, along with Malcolm Brogdon (16 points, 6-for-10 shooting). The Warriors couldn’t do much to contain Brown in the mid-range or around the rim, but his mid-range attack is a complement to the Celtics’ 3-point shooting, which failed them (12-for-40, 30 percent). The Celtics’ offensive rhythm was badly disrupted by the Warriors’ defense, and few of Saturday’s 3-point attempts were preceded by the usual offensive energy and zip.

4. The Celtics were without Al Horford once again (health and safety protocols), and Robert Williams did not make his debut. As a result, the Warriors rebounded 25 percent of their misses and had one of the most efficient evenings on second-chance opportunities this season. 

The Warriors also outscored the Celtics 19-11 in transition, and punished them off live rebounds in particular. In other words, the Celtics lost Saturday’s game on the offensive end and on the margins (offensive rebounding and transition). 

5. Grant Williams was ejected from Saturday’s game for punching a basketball into the stands in the final two minutes of the game. The Warriors had just taken a 17-point lead, and they called timeout to sub out their starters. A Warriors player fired up a shot after the whistle that ricocheted back to Williams. He punched it dispiritedly, but without much enthusiasm.

Unfortunately for Williams, punching the ball into the stands is an automatic ejection, and Scott Foster threw him out immediately. 

“I didn’t know that,” Williams could be seen telling Foster, who patted Williams’ back sympathetically but ushered him on his way to the locker room.

6. The Celtics wouldn’t have assuaged the pain of losing the Finals with a win in December. The regular season is very long, and the Celtics’ hope their playoff run will be very long too. 

Of course, players would be excused if Saturday’s game meant a little more than, say, next week Friday’s showdown against the Magic. But the Celtics have been very clear about what their ultimate goal is this season — winning a title. That’s a different (and probably healthier) mentality than feeling like they need to avenge a loss against last year’s opponent.

Also, never expect a player to admit that a loss meant anything more than one game.

“Tonight was probably more meaningful to you guys than it was to us,” Tatum said. “It was one game. We want to win every game we play for sure, but it’s tough. We never want to lose, and we’ve been playing well, and to lose this one — especially the way we played — was tough. But it’s not going to dictate our season. … 

“It’s all about how we respond. If we came here and won, it’s all about how we respond on Monday, and that’s just the truth of it. It’s over with, and now we going to LA to play the Clippers.”

The Celtics take on the Clippers at 10:30 p.m. EST.

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