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That Was A Hell Of A Defensive Performance

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 05: Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors reacts during the third quarter against the Boston Celtics in Game Two of the 2022 NBA Finals at Chase Center on June 05, 2022 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Eight minutes into the third quarter of Game 2, Jayson Tatum nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key to cut the Warriors’ lead to six, prompting Steve Kerr to call an immediate timeout. The next Celtics field goal came seven whole minutes later, when Aaron Nesmith made a layup to cut the Warriors lead down to 27. The Warriors put the Celtics to the sword during the end of the third and start of the fourth, by making a bunch of threes and generally playing peak Warriorball. They also secured the blowout by putting on a masterful defensive performance across those seven perfect minutes. It wasn’t like they took the other 41 off, either, as the Warriors spent more or less the entire game forcing the Celtics into all manner of tough shots and proving that they have the schemes and personnel to put Boston in tough spots for as long as this series goes.

We should begin with Draymond Green, who has always been the defensive lodestar for the Warriors. In Game 2, he set the tone out of the gates by squaring up with Al Horford on the game’s first possession and grabbing the rock, forcing a jump ball. After spending Game 1 sagging off Horford and repeatedly getting punished for it, Green spent Game 2, after that first possession, matched up with Jaylen Brown. Almost immediately, this gambit seemed to bite the Warriors in the ass. Brown scored eight points in the first two-and-a-half minutes of the game, rising up over Green and splashing a pair of threes; he ended the first frame with 13. As the Celtics do not play with a traditional initiator, Brown is a critical part of their offense. Jayson Tatum is their best player and tends to be the focus of the plurality of Boston’s possessions, but neither he nor Marcus Smart are consistently dangerous dribbling threats.

Brown doesn’t have the playmaking talent of either of those two, but he is a way more threatening player with a live dribble. Shifting Green to Brown and slotting Klay Thompson onto Horford put Green in position to contain Brown when he does get the ball and made him available to stunt and help on actions that don’t involve Brown. Green is one of the smartest players in the league, and probably the best single help defender the NBA has ever seen, and he made this scheme work. Brown went 1-for-11 after the first quarter, and despite the barrage of Tatum and Brown threes in that frame, the Warriors started the second quarter ahead. The first clip here shows how much trouble Green put Brown in, but really, I recommend the whole thing.

Kerr and his staff had a few more flourishes—occasional zone looks, some spot Nemanja Bjelica minutes, an emphasis on sending help late in possessions to throw some sand in the gears of the Celtics offense—though the biggest difference between Games 1 and 2 was the level of physicality. “I think everybody played with more force,” Green said. “It wasn’t just me on Jaylen Brown. It was across the board. If I just pick up my force and no one else does, it doesn’t work. It’s a total team effort, guys being ready to help when help is needed and guys taking on the challenge at the point of attack.” Curry, a tiny man who is often bullied, put forth his best defensive performance of the playoffs. Gary Payton II made his Finals debut and helped the Warriors sustain a new level of intensity, while also helping even the athleticism differential. Thompson ceded a few inches to Horford, though he’s refashioned himself into a very stout post defender since returning from his injuries, and limited Horford to a grim 0-for-3 on post-ups. (It admittedly helped that Horford has exactly one move.) The Warriors have mixed up their coverages, at times switching, hedging, and occasionally doubling, which is the sort of sophisticated balance-killing coverage you can only play when you have five capable defenders being marshaled by someone as smart as Green.

Despite scoring 34 points in the second and third quarters, Boston actually outshot their three-point average in Game 2, finishing 15-for-37, the exact same as Golden State. Given two straight 40-plus percent shooting performances from long range, including one outlier quarter that stole them Game 1, one would probably expect two Boston wins, or at least more than 88 points in the game they dropped. But the Warriors have completely taken away the lane. Boston only made 15 two-pointers last night, which combined with their 22 twos in Game 1, is the lowest mark in a two-game stretch in the history of the NBA Finals. This is not all Golden State, to be fair. Boston spent the competitive portion of Game 2 settling for contested jumpers, often late in the shot clock. They also turned it over 18 times, though the fact that the Warriors notched 15 steals (somehow, neither Payton nor Andrew Wiggins had one) shows how well and how relentlessly all that pressure worked. “You could’ve put Draymond on coach [Ime] Udoka and it would have been a different ballgame from [Game 1] just based on the way he approached the game,” Curry said. “Matchups are matchups. But everybody has to bring the right intensity, and Draymond did that from the jump.”

None of this should really be all that surprising, since the Warriors had the league’s second-best defense this season, and since they have also been built on a stalwart defensive identity that their pretty offense makes deceptively easy to miss. They were killed for the decision at the time, but the Warriors began to take shape as an elite team when they flipped Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut. They won two key 2015 playoff series after Steve Kerr made a pair of brilliant defensive adjustments. Mike Brown and Kerr helped mold Andrew Wiggins from an incoherent collection of tools into an elite defender, and they did it with the help of Draymond Green. The organization’s two years of purgatory were defined less by the absence of the old elite offense than by a fateful lack of smart defensive players. They have those again, and so clearly have the tools to inflict pain on the Celtics in the Finals.

At this point, both teams have suffered blowout losses, and the dynamics of the series are coming into focus. The Warriors will not be able to sustain the level of intensity they flashed in a must-win Game 2, though Payton coming back into the lineup also means they likely won’t break down completely as they did in Game 1. Curry only having to play 32 minutes was big, since the Warriors are going to need to play him heavy minutes to keep an elite Celtics defense off balance. And Boston will clearly need to play with a greater sense of urgency on offense and either more aggressively hunt Curry or run more off-ball stuff to free up Brown and Tatum. Hopefully everyone learns what to do and we can finally get a non-blowout.