For what I think are obvious and correct reasons, most of the focus on the Boston Celtics’ Game 1-stealing 17-0 run has been on the 17 part, rather than the zero that the Golden State Warriors put up against it. The three least capable offensive players in the Celtics’ closing lineup shooting a combined 15-for-23 from three is admittedly much more compelling than the Warriors offense hitting a protracted rough patch; also, the Celtics won. As entertaining as it was to witness the hallucinatory display of shot-making that secured the result, there is also something unsatisfying about a hotly contested game like this coming down to simple three-point variance. Yes, the idea that the NBA is simply “make or miss league” is often a crutch for dumb-dumbs like Mark Jackson to lean on as a way of wriggling out of the responsibilities of understanding basketball, but also it was hard to feel like last night’s outcome hinged on anything schematic or procedural. Draymond Green basically said as much. Sometimes playing the percentages leaves you eviscerated.
But no run like this happens in a vacuum, and the Warriors also failed to score at any point while Al Horford, Derrick White, and Marcus Smart were shooting them out of their own gym. Any take that pins the Celtics win completely on the making and missing of shots of equal expected value must necessarily weight the Warriors’ misses as heavily as the Celtics’ makes. Watching every fruitless possession from the last six minutes of the fourth quarter again this morning, I did find that the Celtics played straightforwardly better defense than the Warriors down the stretch. The process was sound. There was also plenty of support for Green’s reading of the end of the game, as the luck differential was substantial.
The Warriors are such a compelling matchup for the league-best Celtic defense because of their schematic discord. Boston switches everything, and while they deploy more sophisticated coverages when the situation demands it, they are also stocked with six do-it-all defenders who can handle multiple positions and so don’t need to overcomplicate things. It works remarkably well, but also the Warriors’ frenetic off-ball movement, team-wide passing ability, and the omnipresent threat of Curry or Klay Thompson splashing one theoretically negates most of the benefits of switching. You can play a pick-and-roll perfectly, but what are you going to do about the pre-screen action that springs Thompson on the wing while Curry is also darting to the rim? That kind of stuff.
An obvious place to start here is transition. Curry posted historic first-quarter numbers because the Warriors were able to run so much. The Warriors are deadly on the run; Curry and Thompson know exactly how to fill the lanes, and Green knows exactly when to hit them. But it is impossible to get a run-out against a made bucket, and the Celtics’ great defense in the game’s final six minutes starts with them hitting shots. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Warriors posted a 90.1 offensive rating in the half court last night, while their efficiency in transition was 114.3. The bucket that finally ended the Celtics’ run was a transition touchdown pass from Curry to Thompson.
In the half court against the Celtics defense, the Warriors actually got mostly solid looks. During that fateful drought, Curry missed an open shot from floater range after getting into the lane against Derrick White, missed a three after wriggling away from Horford on a switch, twisted his ankle while rising up for another three and had to toss a dump-off pass, got to the rim and scored only for Green to negate the play with an offensive foul, and finally, missed a wide-open layup at the rim. All good opportunities he made for himself in the halfcourt. On the three other relevant possessions, Green struggled. Horford got into his grill and forced a steal after an inbounds play, and a few minutes later, Green drew a foul but missed both free throws.
The actual defensive possession against the Warriors was a crisp team effort. Payton Pritchard, whose playability in this series had seemed to be a real question mark, kept Steph from getting to the rim. Jaylen Brown then stepped into Thompson’s chest and prevented any movement, with Tatum nearly getting a steal before forcing it out to Wiggins. White stoned him, and Tatum flew out at Green as he shot a desperate three. He was lucky to even hit the rim. Green missed all four of his threes on the night, which is rough but expected; the real concern was how comfortable Horford and the Celtics were defending him. Green is a startlingly intelligent player, but the Celtics didn’t have any issues with his movement or passing last night. The Warriors are at their best when Green gives them something on offense, and he’ll have to do a bit more of that in subsequent games.
The Warriors have a few obvious adjustments to make. Green will probably spend less time on Horford going forward, perhaps moving to Jaylen Brown to stay more involved in on-ball actions. The Warriors played the math and got burnt by ceding threes to the Celtics’ less intimidating shooters, though as Thompson said after the game, “Ask any basketball player. When you get great looks from 3, everything else feels easy.” Steph Curry will also have to carry an even greater offensive load, as Jordan Poole looked overmatched against the hungry Celtics and the Warriors seemed incapable of producing good shots without their superstar. Thompson and Green are at an athleticism disadvantage against Boston’s physical defense, so Golden State will need Curry to make space to open up their games. We might also see Gary Payton II play a role in helping the team score, which seems counterintuitive since he’s an extremely limited offensive player, but his ability to get steals creates transition opportunities. Poole bouncing back would solve most of the Warriors’ dynamism problems, as well. But even if Boston’s long-distance shooting regresses towards the reasonable, their defense is for real. That they had luck on their side at the end of the game surely didn’t hurt, but the Celtics have now passed their first test. Now it’s Golden State’s turn.