BOSTON — The Golden State Warriors had the No. 1 offense through the first three rounds of the playoffs, scoring 116.1 points per 100 possessions as they dispatched the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks without facing elimination. Two of those opponents – Memphis (sixth) and Dallas (seventh) ranked in the top 10 defensively in the regular season.
The Boston Celtics, of course, ranked No. 1.
The Warriors have actually scored more efficiently in the NBA Finals (110.5 points scored per 100 possessions) than they did against Memphis in the conference semis (108.3) when they scored less than a point per possession in three of the six games. But the Warriors are trending in the wrong direction, scoring less efficiently with each game in this series. And their 100 points on 94 possessions (106.4 per 100) in Game 3 was their least-efficient performance outside the Memphis series.
The difference between the Celtics’ two wins and the Warriors’ Game 2 victory has been mostly about Boston’s end of the floor. The Eastern Conference champs have scored 125.5 points per 100 possessions over their two wins and were held to less than 90 per 100 in Game 2.
After saying they needed to better space the floor and make quicker decisions with the ball to avoid all those Game 2 turnovers, the Celtics did just that Wednesday in Game 3. On their third possession of the game, we saw Jaylen Brown tell Al Horford to space wide as he iso’d against Draymond Green. And as soon as Andrew Wiggins began to bring help, Brown quickly got the ball to Horford for an open 3…
But while the Celtics’ ability to execute offensively (and take care of the ball, especially) has been the difference between their wins and their losses, their ability to defend the Warriors at a high level is also why they’re now two wins from a championship.
Here are some notes, numbers and film on how the Celtics have been able to slow down the Golden State offense.
1. The Curry pick and roll
The Warriors have been running more pick and rolls for Stephen Curry in the playoffs than in the regular season. And according to Second Spectrum tracking, he used 39 ball screens in Game 3, tied for his seventh-highest total of the season in 83 games. The Warriors scored 1.07 points per chance when setting those ball screens for Curry, down from 1.19 on 35 in Game 1 and 1.17 on 30 in Game 2.
The Celtics remain the team that has switched the most ball screens this season, but when Horford or Robert Williams III have been the screener’s defender in this series, they’ve been in “drop” coverage. Of course, it’s a modified drop coverage, where they’re often closer to the 3-point line than the paint.
There are certainly times when Curry has made the drop coverage look bad, pulling up and draining 3s as the bigs are either sinking in the paint or just late to contest the shot. Curry has an effective field goal percentage of 71.4% on 14 pull-up jumpers per game in this series, up from 53.7% on only 8.5 pull-up jumpers per game through the first three rounds.
But by employing the drop coverage, the Celtics have kept themselves out of trouble elsewhere. There were a couple of examples in Game 1 where Williams blitzed, Curry got off the ball, and the Warriors got a layup…
And the Celtics have had some success in the drop coverage, in part because they have two players – Marcus Smart and Derrick White – who are great at getting around screens. On a dribble handoff in the first quarter on Wednesday, we saw White prevent a Curry pull up by getting around the screen quickly. Smart helped in the paint off of Green and then ran out to contest Klay Thompson’s corner 3-point attempt off another handoff…
2. No separation off the ball
The Warriors aren’t usually a high-volume pick and roll team and they usually break down defenses with ball and player movement. In the regular season, they ranked second in the league with 66.9 off-ball screens per 100 possessions. Over the last eight years, they’ve taught the basketball world about “split” action, where the ball is entered into the post and the entry passer screens for a teammate coming toward the ball. It’s not that complicated, but it can really scramble a defense when Curry and/or Thompson are involved.
The Celtics have defended the Warriors’ off-ball movement about as well as any team can, and one example in that regard came in the middle of the first quarter on Wednesday.
Wiggins entered the ball to Green in the post and Otto Porter Jr. set a cross screen for Curry. With Brown switching onto Curry (the Celtics’ non-bigs continue to switch liberally), Porter tried to slip to the rim. But White (initially guarding Curry) was able to slide below Porter and deflect Green’s pass…
3. The ‘Time Lord’ effect
Williams has had his ups and downs in this series. He’s been limited at times by his knee injury, and the Warriors have been able to take advantage of his lack of foot speed on some possessions. Through the first two games, the Celtics had better numbers, both offensively and defensively, with Williams off the floor than they were with him on.
But he made a big impact in Game 3, blocking four shots and deterring other trips into the paint. The Warriors scored just 10 points in the paint and 69 points total on 69 offensive possessions with Williams on the floor.
One of his best possessions came early in the second quarter, when he prevented a Jordan Poole pick and roll pull up, recovered to back to his man and then helped on a Nemanja Bjelica drive, blocking Bjelica’s runner…
After the Warriors erased an 18-point deficit, the Celtics regained separation when Williams picked up all three of his steals on a stretch of four Golden State possessions early in the fourth quarter. The second was a Green fumble and the third was an interception of a long Curry pass in transition. But the first was Williams playing up against a Curry pick and roll, recovering back and deflecting another Curry pass…
Williams’ mobility – his ability to defend both pull-up jumpers and shots in the paint – will continue to be critical. When he’s at his best, he makes a huge difference defensively.
4. When it all comes together
As a unit, the Celtics’ best defense was probably late in the second quarter after the Warriors had scored on four straight possessions.
First, Smart took away what the Warriors were trying to do (putting Horford in a pick and roll with Curry) by switching onto Gary Payton II before he set the screen. Curry improvised by playing pitch and follow with Green, but White was able to prevent a quick shot by chasing Curry around the screen. Curry was then able to get into the paint with an empty-corner pick and roll, but Smart (because he was guarding Payton) was able to stop the drive…
Payton didn’t take the open 3. He handed the ball off to Thompson, but Brown chased Thompson around the screen, Smart switched onto the ball and contested Thompson’s pull-up 3. Green grabbed the long rebound, but the shot clock had expired…
The Celtics have proven that they can defend the Warriors in the half court. They’ve allowed Curry and Thompson to get loose at times, because it’s absolutely impossible to defend this team perfectly. But the Cs have successfully limited the rest of the Golden State offense, and they only ran into trouble in Game 2 when they committed 15 live-ball turnovers that led to 22 points on the other end of the floor.
As noted, Game 3 was, by far, Golden State’s best defensive performance of the series. And while the Celtics haven’t exactly proven that they can put multiple great games together, it may be that, if the Warriors are going to win their fourth title in the last eight years, they’ll have to win ugly.
Their next opportunity (and their most important game of the season) is Game 4 on Friday (9 ET, ABC).
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