Celtics, Warriors make the Garden rock again

BOSTON -- A hearty and familiar "Let's Go Celtics" chant reverberated off the walls at TD Garden on Friday night when Isaiah Thomas pulled up from a couple of steps behind the 3-point arc late in the fourth quarter, forcing the chant's demise as fans audibly inhaled as he rose. And when his 3-pointer splashed through, putting the Celtics up five over the Golden State Warriors with under four minutes to play, it felt as if the Garden might implode in delirium.

It was a reminder of how this building used to rock. Back when Boston was an honest-to-goodness title contender a half-decade ago. When these sort of epic showdowns were the norm and not just an occasional treat.

For a solid four hours Friday -- from the moment Stephen Curry hit the floor for his hypnotizing pregame warm-up until Jae Crowder's 3-pointer that might have forced a third overtime clanged off the iron -- Boston was the center of the basketball universe.

The Warriors ultimately escaped with their 24-game winning streak intact after a 124-119 triumph. And, sure, no one remembers the team that almost snapped what's now the second-longest winning streak in league history (spanning 28 games if, like the NBA, you include the final four games of the 2014-15 regular season).

And that's why Celtics coach Brad Stevens, still wearing his blazer after racing to the podium following Friday's marathon, wouldn't bite when asked if there's such a thing as a great loss.

"No," he responded immediately, then paused a moment to let the answer resonate. "Not even a good one."

The Celtics will look back and wonder what might have been after squandering multiple opportunities to win Friday's game, an achievement that would have thrust them further into the NBA spotlight as the team that first blemished the record of a Warriors squad that might just make a run at the 1995-96 Bulls' record of 72 wins.

In the immediate aftermath, it won't matter that Avery Bradley turned in a monster two-way effort that included harassing Curry, the league's reigning MVP, on a night in which he fought for all of his 38 points on 9-of-27 shooting over 47 minutes. It'll be hard to accept the silver lining that was Kelly Olynyk scoring a season-high 28 points on 11-of-21 shooting and producing some monster buckets that gave Boston a chance to win the game (although Olynyk's fadeaway at the end of regulation was off target). And there were the little things, such as 20 quality minutes from second-year swingman James Young or the offensive spark that former Warrior David Lee provided early in the fourth quarter, that also will be overshadowed by the final score.

And that's why Stevens, when asked what he'll take from this game, deadpanned, "A flight to Charlotte." Yes, borrowing a line from the New England Patriots, whose players dotted the premium courtside seats Friday night, these Celtics are "on to Charlotte."

But once the sting of Friday's loss wears off, the Celtics should take a minute to savor the experience. These are exactly the sort of games this team should be striving to play in more frequently come April and May.

Stevens had just wrapped up his pregame chat with reporters when Curry ran down the tunnel outside the visitor's locker room for his warm-up routine. A glob of fans shrieked in delight trying to grab his attention -- the sound resembling the familiar squeal from the old news clips of The Beatles arriving in America.

As Curry took the floor, a couple hundred fans formed a veritable wall behind the visitors’ basket. Every iPhone in the building was trained on Curry as he went through his mesmerizing dribbling and shooting drills. ESPN’s SportsCenter broadcast and an ESPN Stats and Info staffer charted the entire workout, finding that Curry made 110 of the 180 shots he took, or 61.1 percent, and he spent much of the workout throwing up circus shots and half-court lobs.

An organic "Let’s Go Celtics" chant -- one of many that rang throughout the building on the night -- sprang up before the opening tip. Bradley nearly reduced the building to rubble himself when he started Friday's game by scoring 15 first-quarter points and out-Currying Curry (while also blanketing him on the defensive end).

Friday's game featured 22 lead changes and 16 ties. Boston rallied from as much as 11 down in the second half. Both teams squandered late-game chances to end this thing sooner, but the fact we got 58 total minutes wasn't a bad deal considering what some paid to get in the door.

This wasn't a basketball game, it was an event. A Boston win would have cemented its spot somewhere in history, if nothing more than a footnote detailing how Golden State's streak ended. Maybe it still will if the Celtics sapped these shorthanded Warriors so much that their run ends Saturday in Milwaukee on the final date of a seven-game road trip.

Even Curry admitted that Friday's game was "exhausting, but it was fun."

"Obviously it was nice to get the win, but we had to claw our way through it," he said. "It was the kind of atmosphere that you like. You hope you don’t have to play an extra 10 minutes to get it done, but we found a way."

And the league's MVP showered both Bradley and the Celtics with praise before the Warriors' rock show zipped out of town for its next tour date.

"They’re tough, man," Curry said. "Their record is still above .500, but they’ve played better than their record, I think. They’ve got some big wins on the road against some tough teams. ... And when they win, they win big. They really show out. So you know they have that punch, that firepower. They provide a couple of matchup problems with some of the bigs that can step out and shoot threes and space the floor. You don’t really know where it’s coming from on a nightly basis, which is tough."

But it might have been veteran Andre Iguodala who best explained how Boston should emerge from this game, challenging the Celtics to maintain their level of play moving forward.

"The key in this league is can you sustain a high level of play night in and night out for 82 games and, like I said, we're getting team's best, but can they keep that same intensity and level of play 82 times?" Iguodala said. "And that's where it gets tough. Maybe you can play at a really high level and execute and you're locked in against two or three elite teams, but the elite teams separate themselves because they play at a high level night in, night out."

As Stevens eventually would admit, there will be positives to pluck from this game. Not in the immediate aftermath, but soon. And yet, if the ultimate goal is to play more of these games, then the Celtics must build from this experience.

The Celtics must get back to the point in which going to a game at TD Garden is an experience -- not just a game -- regardless of the opponent.