However it ends, these NBA Finals may be a classic

Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins (22) dunks against the Boston Celtics during the second half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals in San Francisco, Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)
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AP Basketball Writer

The series won’t end until Thursday, or maybe Sunday. A champion will be crowned, an NBA Finals MVP trophy will be hoisted, one side will spray a few gallons of champagne and the other side will head out into a summer of lament.

The winner: Still to be determined.

But this much is already clear: Even without a single game decided by single digits through the first five contests, these 2022 NBA Finals are on the brink of going down as a classic.

It’s Golden State 3, Boston 2 going into Game 6 on the Celtics’ home floor on Thursday night. The Warriors grabbed the lead in the series with a 104-94 win on Monday in San Francisco, the latest entry on a long list of gut-check moments in this series and the first time either of these teams found a way to win consecutive games in this matchup.

“It feels good,” Golden State’s Klay Thompson said. “But we haven’t done anything yet.”

It looked easy early for his team in Game 5, with the Warriors up 16 before long and taking a 12-point lead into halftime. Boston roared back in the third, taking as much as a five-point lead before Golden State restored order and pulled away in the fourth — the latest entry on a list of wild back-and-forth swings that has defined this series.

The basketball hasn’t always been pretty. Even the most prolific 3-point shooter ever, the Warriors’ Stephen Curry, clanked all nine of his tries from deep in Game 5. The combined shooting numbers in these NBA Finals are the lowest for a title series since 2016, and so is the scoring average. But that’s more a byproduct of two teams with a propensity for cranking up defense when they must, more than lackluster offense.

“Our team came out with a lot of fight,” Golden State’s Jordan Poole said after Game 5.

Such has been the story of these NBA Finals — the guys with more fight walk off winners. Such has really been the story for Boston most of the way in these playoffs. The Celtics won a Game 7 in Round 2 to oust defending champion Milwaukee. Went on the road in the Eastern Conference finals to win a Game 7 at Miami to get here. And now they know, they’ll need to win another Game 7 if they’re going to win this title.

“The message to the guys is to be confident going home, get your rest, let’s get ready to bring it back here,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “For us, it’s really about consistency. That’s the thing we’re not having throughout a full game, consistent efforts, sustained effort, more so offensively than anything.”

The entire series has been a pair of heavyweights throwing knockout punches. The 48-18 run by the Celtics to turn a 15-point third-quarter deficit into a 15-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 1. The 35-14 third quarter that the Warriors turned into an easy win in Game 2. The way the Celtics wasted a big lead, then outscored the Warriors 34-17 to close Game 3. Curry scoring 43 points, even yelling at the crowd along the way, to lead Golden State to a road win in Game 4.

And then came Monday.

It didn’t disappoint. Celtics fans had to be disappointed, sure, but Game 5 didn’t disappoint.

“Our backs are against the wall,” the Celtics’ Al Horford said. “We have to see what we’re made of.”

Boston started the game by missing its first 12 3-point tries, then made its next eight from beyond the arc, a dichotomy the likes of which has never before been seen in NBA Finals history. Most of those eight makes came in a third-quarter outburst that gave the Celtics the lead. It took a banked-in, beat-the-clock 33-foot 3-pointer by Poole on the final play of the third quarter to put Golden State up 75-74.

Poole’s shot was part of a 13-0 run that decided matters Monday, and now the Warriors know that a title — which would be their fourth in eight years — is just one win away.

After seeing Kevin Durant get hurt and then leave for Brooklyn, after seeing Klay Thompson get hurt — three years to the day from Monday — in the 2019 finals and then get hurt again on his way back, after falling to the bottom of the NBA in 2020 and then just missing the playoffs last year, the Warriors are on the brink.

“Here we are,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We have a chance. We have two cracks at getting one win. But we also know how difficult it’s going to be. Nobody’s celebrating, but we’re excited to be in this spot.”

He’s right. If this series has proven anything, that win won’t come easy.