SAN FRANCISCO — When darkness replaces the fog and settles over the Bay Area on Monday, either the Celtics or Warriors will officially teeter on the edge of the NBA Finals.
With the series tied at 2-2, the Finals are still lacking consecutive wins by either team. Maybe this finally happens, with a successful home stand by the Warriors? Or will the Celtics keep the flip-flops coming?
Searching for Game 5 clues? Here are four to look for as that game nears (9 ET, ABC):
Does Steph Curry need help with the load?
Who knew that a guard listed at just 6-foot-2 has such a strong back and legs? If nothing else, Curry has proven that much by carrying the Warriors not only scoring-wise, but with rebounds (he pulled down 10 in Game 4), playmaking and most of all, presence.
This does wonders for Curry’s legacy and to silence his skeptics (if any such species exist) and it does have the Warriors all tied up in the Finals despite the subpar play of some in the rotation. (Hello, Draymond Green.) But do the Warriors need more from others in these next few games to make it all worthwhile?
That’s the task for Golden State heading into Game 5. Curry’s singular dominance is similar to what LeBron James did for the Cavs, Dirk Nowitzki for the 2011 Mavericks and in Golden State’s own franchise history, Rick Barry for the 1974-75 champs. Curry’s scoring average is more than the combined averages of the next two highest-scoring Warriors: 34.3 ppg for Curry, 33.8 ppg for Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins.
Realistically, from a scoring standpoint, this is a job for Thompson and Jordan Poole. They’re the most qualified to get 25 points or more. If either one gets hot, the Celtics are in trouble. If both reach 20 or more along with Curry, the Celtics are on the ropes.
As a footnote, Monday is the three-year anniversary of Thompson’s knee injury against the Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals. What better way to flush that moment out of his memory than with a comeback night? That’s the thing: Golden State is tied despite the lack of help for Curry, which means maybe the Warriors are due. They definitely haven’t played their best game yet, assuming such a game will happen.
Boston’s defense has had something to do with that. So far. Now we’ll see if a Klay Game or a Poole Party is inevitable, and will give the Warriors the edge heading back to Boston.
“Being able to kind of catch our rhythm and got a couple games under our belt this series, I definitely feel like we have an offensive explosion coming, for sure,” said Poole.
Expect the Celtics to adjust defensively, and blame Curry
As much as the conventional thinking might suggest otherwise, teams would rather not make adjustments in the Finals. It’s rather late in the game for that, and it reeks of worry if not panic. They’d rather stay true to themselves and their strengths and live or die with the results. Once the lineup changes and the strategies are tweaked, it becomes a bit out of character.
But maybe the Celtics don’t have much choice, not with Curry forcing them to rethink their plans. Nothing has worked against him thus far, and the Celtics can either continue to double him and leave others open — he’s getting his points anyway — or guard him straight-up and make sure nobody else gets hot.
As a side note, this does present an interesting debate between Curry and Marcus Smart, the Kia Defensive Player of the Year. Because of that award and his reputation, shouldn’t Smart be good enough to slow Curry down? Or does legendary shot-making trump any level of defense?
The Warriors look for switches that give Curry a favorable advantage, and Smart is often being switched off on screens. Curry’s also causing issues with his excellent movement off the ball that allows him to get to his spots; there aren’t many players who can keep up with him or match his quickness.
“The way that he’s able to affect the game by being able to run around and play off the ball and get himself open, it’s just tough on a defender because you can’t take a break,” said Smart. “The instant you think that he’s not doing anything, that the play is over for him, that’s when you get beaten.”
Boston will likely resort to getting physical with Curry and risk being on the wrong side of the referee’s whistle. With Curry on such a roll, maybe the only realistic scenario is to hope and pray he misses.
Celtics’ best defense is better offense
Ime Udoka seemed to suggest, and he made a good point, that it really doesn’t matter what Curry does … if the Celtics are hitting their shots.
“Not playing our best offense overall, I think the narrative gets shifted to Curry and what he’s doing,” the Celtics coach said. “But in our wins and losses, (he’s) scoring the same points. Any time you run some poor offense and turn the ball over, we know how quickly they can get back in the game.”
Sloppy decisions and poor shooting doomed the Celtics in Game 2, then returned to bite them again in the fourth quarter of Game 4. Udoka believes the Celtics, with better ball security and shot selection in pressure situations, could be up 3-1 in the series.
“At least,” he said.
Udoka added: “They are scoring around 107 points. Scored 100 in a game. And when we’ve scored well, we’ve scored 120 and 116. So our balance has to be better on offense.”
The Celtics rely heavily on their three best players to create their own shots. That’s because Smart, while obviously a solid player, is not a pure point guard who can beat his man off the dribble and set up teammates. And when the ball isn’t in the hands of a traditional ballhandler, mistakes can happen. Therefore, even though he’s struggling, Tatum still must produce points by himself instead of being a finisher and getting easier hoops off passes.
Speaking of that …
Andrew Wiggins is quietly a problem for Jayson Tatum
Not only is the Celtics’ scoring leader struggling with efficiency and facing a hostile arena on Monday, he’ll also stare at Wiggins again. It’s not the ideal time, place and situation for Tatum to spring himself free of the funk, but here we are.
Some clarification is in order: Wiggins isn’t defending Tatum straight-up for an entire game. This is a collaborative effort because that’s how the Warriors do their business. But much like the previous playoff series against Dallas and Luka Doncic, Wiggins is the first line of defense (and also switches on Jaylen Brown on occasion), and he’s building quite a reputation for himself in the Finals.
“He’s taken a leap in these playoffs in terms of his impact on the game defensively and on the glass,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “He’s a two-way player. You’ve got to have two-way players to make it this far. He has grown by leaps and bounds and it’s exciting to watch that growth.”
Yes, Wiggins leads all rebounders in the Finals at 8.5, but his defense is most important given the stakes and how Tatum came into this series feeling frisky. Hard to imagine the Celtics surviving if Tatum continues to shoot 34%; he has yet to make 10 shots in any game.
Boston will explore using more favorable switches for Tatum, especially if those switches involve getting Curry instead of Wiggins on Tatum, where the size advantage would be in their favor. As a bonus, perhaps Tatum can get Curry into foul trouble.
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