BOSTON — It was noted in this space after Game 1 of the NBA Finals that, since Draymond Green returned from a two-month absence, the Golden State Warriors’ defense hadn’t reached the level it was playing at before Green was lost to a back issue. Games 4 and 5 of the conference finals, along with Game 1 of this series, were the worst three-game stretch of defense (123.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) that the Warriors have had with Green in uniform this season.
And then came Game 2, when the Warriors held the Boston Celtics to just 88 points on 98 possessions (89.8 per 100), Golden State’s best defensive performance since mid-January. The Celtics actually had 30 points on their first 24 possessions of the game, but from late in the first quarter until they took their starters out of the game early in the fourth, they scored just 34 points on a stretch of 52 possessions (*65.4 per 100).
* In the regular season (1,230 games x 2 teams x 2 halves), there were only 11 instances where a team had a less efficient first or second half than that. In these playoffs, the only time a team has scored less than 65.4 per 100 in a half was the Suns (58.7 per 100) in the first half of Game 7 vs. Dallas.
Draymond Green seemingly set the tone when he forced a jump ball on the first possession of the game, and he was a menace defensively for nearly all of his 35 minutes on the floor in Game 2. But defensive numbers like that don’t come without contributions from everybody in the rotation.
1. The primary targets
Jordan Poole has allowed 1.32 points per possession in isolation in the playoffs, according to Synergy tracking. That’s the worst mark among 26 players who’ve defended at least 20 isolation possessions. Stephen Curry, meanwhile, has the third-worst mark (1.20).
A big part of the Celtics’ offense is getting Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown in an action against one of the opponents’ defensive liabilities. And while Boston’s success in Game 1 wasn’t primarily about the two stars scoring against the Warriors’ lesser (or smaller) defenders, those defenders weren’t easy targets in Game 2 either.
Late in the first quarter, Tatum set a screen for Derrick White to get Poole switched onto him. But Tatum wasn’t able to do much on the ensuing post-up, missing a contested turnaround jumper…
Midway through the second quarter, Curry switched onto Brown, stayed in front and contested a tough, step-back 3 as the shot clock expired…
After shooting 7-for-16 in the last six seconds of the shot clock in Game 1, the Celtics were just 2-for-15 in late-clock situations in Game 2.
2. The new target
After playing only 48 seconds of garbage time in Game 1, Nemanja Bjelica got rotation minutes in Game 2, playing the the first five minutes of both the second and fourth quarters. And that had him on the floor with Poole, a potentially dangerous situation for the Warriors’ defense. Prior to Sunday, Golden State had allowed 127.8 points per 100 possessions in 73 playoff minutes with Poole and Bjelica on the floor together.
But on Sunday, the Celtics scored just 14 points on 21 possessions (0.67 per) with Poole and Bjelica on the floor together. And Bjelica certainly wasn’t a bystander in that regard.
In fact, on Bjelica’s first defensive possession of the game, he switched onto Tatum. He almost got turned around by a wicked crossover combination, but was able to get back in front of Tatum’s drive and force one of the Celtics’ 15 live-ball turnovers.
3. Help and recover
The Warriors aren’t leaving their targeted defenders on an island. As illustrated clearly in the Tatum vs. Poole example above, they’re shading toward those isolations, ready to provide help. The Celtics were able to take advantage of the extra attention in Game 1, but two things were different in Game 2…
1. The Warriors forced a ton of turnovers by poaching when the Celtics’ drove…
2. The Warriors were better able to recover back to shooters after showing help.
Here, Klay Thompson shows help on a Tatum isolation against Bjelica, recovers back to White, stays in front of White’s drive, and contests his runner…
The turnovers were painful, but the Celtics also shot just 12-for-30 (40%) in the paint on Sunday. That was their third-worst shooting performance in the paint this season.
The most memorable defensive possession of Otto Porter Jr.’s career was not a good one. Playing for the Washington Wizards seven years ago, Porter totally spaced out as Tony Snell relocated to the other side of the floor. Marcin Gortat had to leave his man to contest Snell’s jumper, and Gortat’s man (Pau Gasol) grabbed an offensive rebound that sealed the win for the Chicago Bulls. So it was more painful than just the “Shaqtin’ a Fool” segment that would follow.
That will probably remain the most memorable defensive possession of Porter’s career. But he has been a good defender for the Warriors, and he had some excellent moments on that end of the floor in Game 2.
Late in the second quarter, a Brown drive drew baseline help from Green, leaving Curry on the weak side with two Celtics. Al Horford dove from the left wing and Porter rotated down from the top of the key to deflect Brown’s pass…
Midway through the third quarter, the Celtics were struggling offensively when they got a transition opportunity. But Porter was back and, after helping stop Marcus Smart’s drive to the hoop, he anticipated Smart’s drop-off pass to Horford and took it the other way…
Porter had five deflections in less than 15 minutes in Game 2 and is now tied (with Green and Jrue Holiday) for fifth in deflections per 36 minutes (3.2) among the 57 players who’ve played at least 200 minutes in the playoffs.
5. The straw that stirs the drink
Green led the Warriors with eight deflections on Sunday. He’s the star that stirs the drink, and he was in multiple places on multiple possessions in Game 2.
Midway through the first, he helped on a Tatum iso vs. Curry and then recovered to contest Brown’s corner 3-point attempt…
Early in the second, he absolutely smothered a Brown isolation…
Green’s 0.60 points per possession allowed (with opponents shooting 4-for-20) is the best mark among those 26 players who’ve defended at least 20 isos in the playoffs.
In Game 1, Green was often hanging out in the paint, slow to close out to Horford and White. In Game 2, he was often defending the Celtics 30 feet from the basket…
Down 1-0 in the Finals, the Warriors’ defense needed to hit a level that it hadn’t seen in a few months. It did just that, and the Celtics didn’t respond particularly well. They obviously didn’t take care of the ball and they sometimes let the Warriors off the hook by taking contested jumpers instead of seeking out better shots.
With the series now tied and with the need to protect the home-court advantage that they gained with their Game 1 victory, the Celtics will need a better response in Game 3 on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ABC).
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