BOSTON -- Game 4 of any NBA playoff series is the first in which the measure of a team’s tenacity can be accurately made. The only possibilities are a sweep (4-0), the establishing of dominance (3-1) or an exhibition of resilience (2-2).
The outcome of Game 4 of the NBA Finals between the Warriors and Boston Celtics on Friday night will reveal which team has the heart of a champion.
Which is to say the team that wins not only knows what it must to do, but also has the ability to execute it and the determination to do so until the game is decided.
If Boston prevails and becomes the first team to deal consecutive losses to the Warriors this postseason, it takes a three-games-to-one lead and buries Golden State in a hole so deep only once in Finals history has it been escaped.
If the Warriors prevail, they regain home-court advantage and return to the Bay Area with an entirely rational optimism.
The stakes are, particularly for the Warriors, significantly higher.
“It is desperate,” Otto Porter Jr. said Thursday. “We have to win Game 4, for sure. We just have to stay poised in the first quarter and just meet their physicality.”
The Warriors understand the mission. They realized it on May 29, when the Celtics vanquished the stubborn but ultimately exhausted Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. To lose Game 6 at home and then go to Miami and find a way to win the clincher is a powerful statement about Boston’s fortitude.
Flying to San Francisco two days later and digging deeply enough to overcome a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter was yet another impressive bit of testimony as to who these Celtics are. They’re rapidly developing the heart of a champion.
Are they ready to certify that status?
The core members of the Warriors have certified their heart three times over. The question for them is altogether different than that facing the Celtics and their youngish core.
Do Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson still have what it takes?
Only Curry has been in championship form though all three games. Jaylen Brown has been very good for Boston, but Steph’s 116.8 offensive rating tops all starters for both teams. Draymond was bad in Game 1, terrific in Game 2 and abysmal in Game 3. Klay low-profiled through Games 1 and 2 before making his presence felt in Game 3.
“It's on us, for sure,” Green said of the three-ring trio. “Those two guys [Curry and Thompson] did their part [in Game 3]. I didn't do mine.
“It's always going to be on us, regardless of how deep we go into the bench.”
They’re all well past 30 years old but also at different physical stages. Curry, 34, is among the best-conditioned athletes in sports and it shows. Draymond, 32, has spent most of his career battling bigger, heavier monsters in the paint, which takes a physical toll. He’s fast approaching a crossroads regarding the ability to make a consistent impact. Klay, 32, is five months beyond a 941-day absence due to separate devastating injuries, one to each leg. He looks good, but he’s likely to be better next season.
“I'm just going to try to seize the moment, knowing what the last two years entailed for me,” Thompson said. “Nothing is guaranteed in this league, so I'm just trying to soak it all in.”
A lot is being asked of those three players, who still believe they can reach the desired goal. They also are realizing that getting to a championship with such advanced careers, with this roster, is tougher than it was a few years ago. A lot tougher.
That’s why the Warriors’ hearts will be on full display in Game 4. Persistent force has to be visible early, especially on defense, to avoid falling behind by 15 barely seven minutes after tipoff, as they did in Game 3. It has to be visible late to avoid the kind of catastrophic fourth quarters that undid them in Games 1 and 3.
“We need to come out with that force, that Warriors brand of ball that has been so successful this past decade,” Thompson said.
While it is possible for the Warriors to have the heart of a champion and still lose Game 4, that would signal that they probably don’t have the capacity this time around.
For them to have any chance of winning, though, there can be no doubt what lies inside.