Finals down to best two out of three games - which defense will break first?
Both teams are conceding opportunities in order to take away their opponent's biggest threat
Stephen Curry is collecting accolades like some people collect tiki cups, but to him, none of that is important. Asked to rank his game four performance, the Warriors’ superstar quipped, “I don't rank my performances. Just win the game.”
After blasting apart the Boston Celtics for one of (if not the) most significant postseason performance(s) of his career, you have to wonder what sorts of adjustments the Celtics will have in store for tonight’s game against Curry. Coming into these Finals, it was clear that both teams were going to have their hands full, and the matchup of the #1 and #2 regular season defenses has lived up to the billing, but has also been defined by offensive explosions.
In order to win, these teams have to summon something extraordinary. In game one, it was the Celtics blistering shooting from deep in the fourth quarter. But the most indelible memory so far has been the dominance of Curry. He's been far and away the best player on the court, leaving the Celtics staggered searching for answers on how to slow him down.
These last two or three games are going to be intense.
WHO: Golden State Warriors vs Boston Celtics
WHEN: Monday, June 13, 2022 // 6pm PDT
Injury update: watch for that knee on Robert Williams. He left game four early and didn't return, coinciding with the Celtics slide.
Bend without breaking - a look at the strengths and weakness of each team’s defensive choices
Coming into this series, it was clear that though these are the best two defenses in the NBA this season, there was no way to completely stop either offense. Whichever side could do the best job at slowing their opponent’s best player without breaking the rest of their own defensive schemes was going to come out on top.
So far, both teams have stayed consistent with their defensive focus: the Warriors homed in on Jason Tatum, and the Celtics primarily concerned by Curry. But the difference between the two is that the Warriors are more highly prioritizing Tatum, making his life difficult and accepting what that does for the role players around him. The margins have been thin. The statistics are just as equal as the series score is, via basketball reference, check out how close it has been between these two teams:
Boston has taken the unusual step of playing a primarily single drop coverage against Curry, daring the rest of the supporting cast to make their defense pay. So far, Curry is destroying this approach. He’s shooting 50% from the field, 49% from three-point and 85.7% on free throws… with crazy heavy usage load. But in general, both approaches are working as both the Warriors and Celtics have struggled to maintain their pretty offensive flow.
From Shane Young, take a gander at both team’s abysmal halfcourt offensive ratings (ORT) - this is a measure of how many points the teams are scoring per 100 possessions. Neither team is even breaking 100 points in the halfcourt:
Some other salient takeaways from that table:
Check out not just the Warriors tremendous 123.3 ORTG, but Boston’s paltry 93.9. It’s astounding to see that the Celtics offense in transition is even worse than their middling halfcourt numbers. The discrepancy between these two would seem to indicate that it is very much in Golden State’s interest to push the pace in game five, and beyond.
Also, as Ivan Betger pointed out in our writer’s chat, the assist percentage numbers at the bottom of the table are staggering. Under Steve Kerr, the Warriors motion-based offense has weathered it’s fair share of criticism, but generally works, even against high pressure defenses. Boston however, is a different story. Golden State is still finding a way to keep pace thanks to their defense, but the low assist numbers indicate just how severe of an impact the Celtic defense is having.
Well, impact on the rest of Golden State’s offense anyways... Curry is demolishing them, averaging close to the hallowed 50-40-90 split in the Finals, he’s scored 137 points on 50% from the field; the rest of the Warriors’ starters? 176 points on 39% shooting.
Just amazing. Making basketball history, and we all get front row seats…
Next, let’s take a look at Boston’s shooting. Is it unsustainable?
The team is putting up a similar number of attempts as their previous series, but hitting them at a significantly greater frequency. A lot of this was evident since they tore away at the end of game one by not missing anything in the fourth quarter, but the overall trend has been fairly consistent all Finals.
For further example, that tight game four? Just looking solely at uncontested shots, the Warriors had four more wide open looks from deep, but hit seven less of their attempts. That’s 3-17 for the Warriors, and 10-13 made by Boston. Small sample sizes rule in the Finals (or any playoff series), but even within these limited possessions, it’s not all that hard to imagine the Warriors finding more traction in this regard; and the Celtics finding less.
With games turning on just a few minutes’ worth of clock time, it doesn’t take much of a change to result in a major break, one way or the other. Just like the Celtics caught fire at the end of game one, their wheels fell off in the final crucial moments of game four, turning a close game into a comfortable win for Golden State; all in the swing of just a handful of minutes.
Golden State’s defense is selling out hard on Tatum, but there was also some late ratcheting down that occurred in game four.
Unlike the success of Curry (34 points per game, with an efficient .664 TS%), Tatum and the Celtics have struggled to find a consistently reliable option. Jaylen Brown has been the one to bolster Tatum’s inefficiency (more on that in a moment). Both players are precisely tied at 22.3 points per game. This is a striking contrast between the two teams: Draymond Green and other Warriors’ mainstays are struggling to find the same success as they have in the past — Green in particular has found less opportunities and successes. With the added attention that the Warriors are devoting to ensure that Tatum has a tough time out there, Brown has burst onto the stage in a big way. Though they score at the same rate in these Finals, Brown’s more efficient scoring (.545 TS% compared to Tatum’s .476) belongs somewhere on the pantheon of explanations for why this series has been so close. And the contrast partially explains the quiet series from Green, aside from plenty of timely defense and a clutch rebound or three.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka sounded downright flummoxed in his postgame interviews, pointing towards a Celitcs offense that stalled out when needed most:
“We wanted to get the ball up quick and get into an offense,” Udoka said. “If we don’t have anything, still make them work the clock. A lot of times, it felt like we were standing around, unsure of who we were trying to go after, and it led to those stalled-down possessions…The opponent is what it is. It’s a lot to do with us.”
It’s crazy how statistically close this series is right now. Obviously, given the way the last game ended, Boston is going to be coming back with some specific adjustments to remedy what’s been ailing them. The list is long and complicated though.
I started off with it, and I’m standing by it. Dubs in six. Golden State has the best player on the court, and the psychological edge that comes with it. Combined with the years of experience consolidated on Golden State’s roster, it’s time to grind down the Celtics.
That said, these games have all been close, and super important. With the best two out of three left, strap in for another emotional night, one way or another.