NBA Finals: Celtics turned the tables on Warriors in Game 1

NBA Finals: Celtics turned the tables on Warriors in Game 1

SAN FRANCISCO–A 180, a flip, a reversal, whatever you want to call it, the Celtics turned the tables on the Warriors in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Finals. Boston outscored Golden State 40-16 in the final frame, restricting the Dubs to an offensive rating of 88.0. The Celtics were the most defensively skilled team in the regular season and have improved their play since then. What was the secret to their fourth quarter shut down on Thursday? It was the best thing Boston has done all year: switching.

After starting the game with Rob Williams and Al Horford, and curiously dropping on many pick & rolls, the Celtics played the fourth quarter with one big on the floor. Horford and Williams did not share the court and the result was smaller, faster, and more switchy.

“They were attacking Rob at times using [Andrew] Wiggins,” ImeUdoka explained afterward. “He was a bit too low. Al was also. We were also aggressive and tried to take away some of their airspace on threes. Then we switched to the small lineup and made them beat us at the three-point line. Did some pre-switching to keep the bigs off, and it worked well for us.”

Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) talks to his team during the second half against the Golden State Warriors.

Boston struggled with two-big looks in Game 1. The starting five of Horford, Williams, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart was outscored by eight points in only 14 minutes. Overall, the Celtics were a minus-10 with Horford and Williams together in 16 minutes, and a minus-4 in eight minutes with Horford and Grant Williams. These pairings were a bit more conservative defensively and dropped on Stephen Curry on their perimeter. This allowed him to make open threes.

As Udoka stated, the switching allowed Boston stay closer to shooters during the fourth quarter. Curry had fewer good looks and Golden State shot six threes before garbage time. The Warriors had launched 37 attempts from deep entering the quarter, or roughly 12.3 per period prior to the fourth. The Celtics were able to swap matchups on the floor because of pre-switching, which kept Rob Williams and Horford from some actions with Curry.

Horford stated that the scheme also helped the Celtics on defense. The Warriors had zero offensive rebounds in the fourth until garbage time after picking up 11 in the first three quarters. Golden State’s halfcourt offense was struggling for most of the game, but the second-chance points helped them. Boston was able keep more bodies closer the the hoop in the fourth quarter by scrambling less at the perimeter.

“Yeah it’s been fun since I’ve been there, just all the defensive coverages that we do, and the way we can mix-and-match and make changes throughout this game,” Derrick White stated after the game. It’s great to have everyone out there who can defend multiple positions. That’s what we hang our hat on.”

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Also helping matters: Golden State’s lineups. The Warriors spent much of the fourth with two non-shooters, which made it difficult for them to spread out. Draymond Green sat alongside Andre Iguodala for five minutes, and Kevon Looney stayed on the floor for another minute. (The three-guard lineup of Curry, Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson along with Wiggins and Green did make an appearance, but by then Boston’s run had turned into an avalanche, and that group does have issues defensively. )

Boston largely ignored Iguodala or Green on the perimeter when they were on the court. Draymond is proud of his offensive role, but his inability to shoot could be a problem. Looney offers elite rebounding, even though he’s the only big player on the court. Green was left to his own devices offensively, and he responded with a 2-of-12 shooting night, including 0-of-4 from three.

What does this all mean for the rest? It’s tempting for the Warriors to suggest that they will have to get rid of any non-shooter groups. This means that Green-Iguodala or Green-Looney pairings should be avoided, especially when Boston is small. This doesn’t mean the Dubs won’t have success with such groups. However, the level of difficulty against a Celtics defense without obvious weaknesses will be higher (which was not the case in the previous three rounds).

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But shooting variance plays a role here–though to what degree is tricky to decipher. The Warriors were also unable to defend, giving up wide-open views to Horford (and other) from the perimeter. Some of the Celtics’ plays were lucky. And Horford, White, Marcus Smart and Payton Pritchard likely wouldn’t connect on 17-of-26 (65.4%) from deep on the exact same shot diet in Game 2. Many of those looks were clean. The Warriors’ offensive strategy of limiting dribble penetration and forcing harder shots and getting out in transition will be as effective as any lineup they play. This will also help the defense. This game will likely be different if Green misses a few of his tougher looks and makes a few open threes. Pritchard played eight minutes in fourth game after having played six minutes each of the previous two. Perhaps the Dubs will attack him more next game? )

Ultimately, the Warriors can’t overreact to Game 1. They can’t ignore hot shooting and not overreact to Game 1. The Celtics were quicker to put spacier groups on Thursday. The beauty of their roster is their defense’s ability to hold up regardless of the combination of players on the floor. In Game 1, the Warriors didn’t have the same luxury. Golden State must solve the Celtics’ switching if it wants to win the series.

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