• Full Coverage: 2022 NBA Finals
BOSTON- The Golden State Warriors were No. 1 on offense in the first three rounds of the playoffs, averaging 116.1 points per 100 possessions as they defeated the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks without an elimination. Two of those opponents — Memphis (sixth) and Dallas (seventh) — ranked in the top 10 defensively in the regular season.
The Boston Celtics are number 1, of course.
The Warriors actually scored more efficiently in the NBA Finals (110.5 points per 100 possessions) than they did against Memphis in the conference semifinals (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 every game this series. And her 100 points on 94 possessions (106.4 per 100) in Game 3 was her least efficient performance outside of the Memphis Series.
The difference between the Celtics’ two wins and the Warriors’ win in Game 2 mostly concerned Boston’s end of the floor. The Eastern Conference champions have averaged 125.5 points per 100 possessions in their two wins and were held at less than 90 per 100 in Game 2.
After saying they needed to spread the ground better and make quicker decisions with the ball to avoid all those ball losses in Game 2, the Celtics did just that in Game 3 this Wednesday. On their third possession of the game, we saw how Jaylen Brown Al Horford prompted space wide when he iso’d against Draymond Green. And as soon as Andrew Wiggins began bringing in help, Brown quickly brought the ball to Horford for an open 3…
But while the Celtics’ ability to play offensively (and, more importantly, to watch the ball) made the difference between their wins and losses, their ability to defend at a high level is also why the Warriors are now have two wins ahead of them one championship.
Here are some notes, numbers, and footage of how the Celtics were able to slow down the Golden State’s offense.
1. The curry pick and roll
The Warriors pulled more pick and rolls for Stephen Curry in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. And according to Second Spectrum tracking, he used 39 ball screens in Game 3, which ranks for his seventh-highest total of the season in 83 games. The Warriors scored 1.07 points per chance when they set those ball sieves for Curry, up from 1.19 on 35 in Game 1 and 1.17 on 30 in Game 2.
The Celtics remain the team to have changed the most ball screens this season, but if Horford or Robert Williams III were the screener’s defensive back this series, they were in “drop” coverage. Of course, it’s modified drop coverage, where they’re often closer to the 3-dot line than the paint.
There are certainly times when Curry makes drop coverage look bad by pulling up and dumping 3s while the bigs are either drowning in paint or just too late to contest the shot. Curry has an effective field goal percentage of 71.4% with 14 pull-up jumpers per game this series, versus 53.7% with only 8.5 pull-up jumpers per game in the first three rounds.
But by employing drop coverage, the Celtics have stayed out of trouble elsewhere. There were a few 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 with drop coverage, in part because they have two players – Marcus Smart and Derrick White – who are great at avoiding screens. In a dribble handover in the first quarter on Wednesday, we saw White avoid a curry pullup by quickly coming around the screen. Smart helped paint Green and then ran out to contest Klay Thompson’s 3-point corner try after another handoff…
2. No separation from the ball
Not typically a high-volume pick and roll team, the Warriors typically break defenses with ball and player movement. During the regular season, they ranked second in the league with 66.9 off-ball screens per 100 possessions. For the past eight years, they’ve been teaching the basketball world about “split” action, where the ball is hit into the post and the entry passer looks for a teammate to come at the ball. It’s not that complicated, but it can really mess up a defense when Curry and/or Thompson are involved.
The Celtics defended the Warriors’ off-ball movement as well as any team, and an example of that came midway through the first quarter on Wednesday.
Wiggins put the ball in the post for Green and Otto Porter Jr. put in a cross screen for Curry. When Brown switched to Curry (the Celtics’ non-bigs continue to switch liberally), Porter attempted to sideline. But White (who initially guarded Curry) was able to slip under Porter and deflect Green’s pass…
3. The Time Lord Effect
Williams has had his ups and downs in this series. He was hampered at times by his knee injury, and the Warriors were able to take advantage of his lack of foot speed on a few possessions. In the first two games, the Celtics had better numbers both offensively and defensively when Williams was off the ground than they were with him.
But he made a big impression in Game 3, blocking four shots and deterring other forays into the paint. The Warriors had just 10 points in the paint and 69 points overall on 69 offensive possessions with Williams on the floor.
One of his best possessions came early in the second quarter when he stopped a Jordan Poole pick-and-roll pull-up, recovered to get back at his man and then assisted a Nemanja Bjelica drive by scoring Bjelica’s runner blocked…
After the Warriors closed an 18-point deficit, the Celtics regained their split when Williams picked up all three of his steals on a stretch of four possessions at the Golden State 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 against a Curry pick and roll, recovering and repelling another Curry pass…
Williams’ mobility – his ability to defend both pull-up jumps and shots in the paint – will continue to be crucial. When he’s at his best, he makes a big difference defensively.
4. When everything fits together
As a unit, the Celtics’ best defense was probably late in the second quarter after the Warriors scored in 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 to Gary Payton II before setting the screen. Curry improvised by playing pitch and follow with Green, but White was able to prevent a quick shot by chasing Curry across the screen. Curry was then able to get into the paint with a pick and roll in the empty corner, but Smart (because he was guarding Payton) was able to stop the drive…
Payton didn’t take the 3 up. He passed the ball to Thompson, but Brown chased Thompson around the screen, Smart switched to the ball and fought Thompson’s pull-up 3. Green grabbed the long rebound, but the shot clock ran out…
The Celtics proved they can defend the Warriors at half-time. They’ve allowed Curry and Thompson to break loose at times because it’s absolutely impossible to defend this team perfectly. But the Cs successfully limited the rest of the Golden State offense, and they only got into trouble in Game 2 when they committed 15 live ball turnovers that led to 22 points at the other end of the floor.
As previously mentioned, Game 3 was by far Golden State’s best defensive performance of the series. And while the Celtics haven’t exactly proven they can put together several great games, if the Warriors want to win their fourth title in the last eight years, it may have to win ugly.
Her next opportunity (and her most important game of the season) is Game 4 on Friday (9 ET, ABC).
* * *
John Schuhmann is a senior statistics analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, his archive can be found here and Follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs, or Turner Broadcasting.