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NBA Finals: Three adjustments Warriors can make as they attempt to tie series with Celtics in Game 2

If winning Game 1 guaranteed a series victory, the Boston Celtics would have been knocked out of the playoffs long ago. They lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Miami Heat. They lost Game 1 of the second round to the Milwaukee Bucks. They very nearly lost Game 1 of the first round against the Brooklyn Nets. They won all three series. They may not win this one.

The Golden State Warriors know well how quickly things can change in the Finals. Though the Game 1 winner has won four of the five Finals series they’ve played in, they notably blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals. No team makes the Finals by accident. The caliber of opponent practically guarantees a shifting game-by-game landscape. The Warriors and Celtics are both good enough and versatile to trade haymakers for seven full games. The seventh, if we get there, will look nothing like the first.

The possible seventh is two weeks away. Game 2 is here and now. The Warriors lost Game 1 at home, 120-108, and have spent the past few days back at the drawing board trying to figure out what went wrong. So with the Warriors trying to even the Finals on Sunday night, let’s take a look at three possible adjustments they could make to combat the Celtics.

1. Identifying the mismatch

Marcus Smart, predictably, spent more time guarding Stephen Curry than any other Warrior. NBA.com tracking data attributes 29.2 defensive possessions on Curry to Smart, but you probably can’t guess which Warrior got the second-most attention from the Defensive Player of the Year. Hint: it wasn’t one of their other star guards.

No, it was Golden State’s offensive hub: Draymond Green. The move was unconventional, yet ruthlessly logical. Green isn’t going to lord a size advantage over Smart. Even if he was a good enough scorer to take advantage of the matchup, Smart wouldn’t allow it. We’re talking about a guard who held his own against Giannis Antetokounmpo. Green wasn’t going to test him. That’s not even his function in the offense. Golden State runs the bulk of its pick-and-roll and hand-off action through Green both to make up for his limitations as a shooter and to maximize his basketball IQ. He has the green light to fake a handoff or slip a screen when he sees the opportunity, but generally speaking, his job is to set up Curry and friends for easier shots. The problem Golden State encountered in Game 1 was that Smart defending Green effectively meant that he could switch onto any ball-handler who tried to dance with him. Watch as a frustrated Curry commits an offensive foul trying to break away from Smart off of the switch:

Jordan Poole didn’t do much better when he tried to use Kevon Looney as his screener and came face to face with Smart as well:

This is problematic for Golden State on several levels, not the least of which is Green’s 29.6 percent hit rate from behind the arc. If Green isn’t acting as a hub, it’s significantly harder to find uses for him offensively. There’s only so much cutting and connective passing a player can do when the defense doesn’t really have to guard him. The Warriors can mitigate this by limiting Green’s minutes alongside fellow non-shooters. This might not be an Andre Iguodala series, for example. But the broader problem here is Golden State’s disinterest in switch-hunting. It’s antithetical to their egalitarian offensive philosophy. Let James Harden and LeBron James and Luka Doncic seek out the proper matchups. Golden State wants to run its stuff against whoever dares to defend it.

That didn’t work in Game 1. There’s a middle ground to be found here, but it should be noted that there isn’t exactly a “good” answer here. Milwaukee settled on Jaylen Brown as its preferred target because it didn’t consider him strong enough for Antetokounmpo. The Heat landed on Derrick White as too small to contest Jimmy Butler. Payton Pritchard would probably be a wise place to start, but Boston would prefer not to leave him on the floor against Curry for extended stretches, and Poole didn’t fare nearly as well against him as the Warriors would have hoped.

That’s a matchup worth poking at in Game 2 if Boston keeps offering it, and the general concept of a small-small pick-and-roll is worth exploring if only for the possible havoc Curry, Poole and Klay Thompson can cause together. Otherwise? Boston’s seven core rotation players are all roughly All-Defense caliber. It’s just going to be about finding the one who matches up worst with Golden State’s ball-handlers. Might that be Grant Williams? He just spent two rounds banging with Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo. Chasing Curry and Thompson might as well be a different sport.

This is going to take some trial and error, but if Game 1 taught us anything, it’s this: Smart is not the defender Golden State wants to test. Keeping him out of the play should be its preference, and that’s going to mean finding a new target. 

2. Let’s tinker with the rotation a bit

Yes, yes, I know, I just suggested limiting Green’s minutes along non-shooters, and yes, I know that Gary Payton II had a rickety jumper even before he broke his elbow. There’s no telling what condition is shot is in now. But humor me. 

The Celtics are averaging 13.5 turnovers per 100 possessions in their playoff wins. They’re averaging 16.8 turnovers per 100 possessions in their playoff losses. The points those turnovers create directly certainly help, but they also seem to have a psychic effect on the Boston offense. Watch the Celtics at their lowest moments against the Heat especially and you’ll see an offense that’s afraid of its own shadow, firing ill-advised shots and passing into some of the laziest pick-sixes you’ll ever see. The Celtics are a jump-shooting team. Turnovers destroy rhythm. Payton is a turnover machine. Golden State generated 16.7 of them per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the regular season and 13.4 without him. That gap of 3.3 turnovers per 100 possessions is the exact gap between Boston’s wins and losses.

Boston won’t guard him. The Celtics hardly guarded Iguodala either. Perhaps a bit of Nemanja Bjelica could balance out the spacing woes? He defended quite well in the Dallas series, and Boston has no pick-and-roll threat as imposing as Luka Doncic. The Celtics have been an average isolation offense in the playoffs and were slightly worse in the regular season. The Warriors would probably live with them trying to punish Bjelica one-on-one for a stretch.

When Golden State last reached the Finals, it did so with a woefully thin roster. Losing Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson was not, in itself, what doomed the Warriors. Remember, Golden State very nearly forced a Game 7 against Toronto without them. But its payroll was so top-heavy and minutes were so scarce outside of the core that it couldn’t afford experienced backups and couldn’t develop younger ones. Swap Otto Porter Jr. in for Alfonzo McKinnie and the Warriors might have won the 2019 championship. This roster doesn’t have that problem. James Wiseman is the only player on this roster who is out of the equation right now. Payton, Bjelica, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga could all get chances against the Celtics. All bring very specific strengths and weaknesses to the table. It’s up to Steve Kerr to figure out how best to maximize those strengths and minimize the weaknesses. Somewhere on this roster exists a rotation that can beat Boston. Of course, if the Celtics make 21 3s, there might not be a roster anywhere that could hang with them.

3. Deciding how to defend Boston’s shooting

Draymond Green didn’t buy into Boston’s hot shooting. “They hit 21 3s and Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Derrick White combined for 15,” he said. “Those guys are good shooters, but they combined for what, 15 out of eight, Smart seven, eight, 15 for 23. Is my math right? Eight, seven and eight. Eight, seven and eight. Yea, that’s 23, right? Fifteen for 23 from those guys. Eh. We’ll be fine.”

Defenses have been playing the “no way Boston can keep shooting this well” card all postseason. Remember when the Bucks refused to guard Grant Williams in Game 7 of the second round only to watch him make seven 3-pointers in the win? Moments like that make it easy to forget that he’d shot 2 of 14 from 3 in the previous four games. The Celtics shot 13 of 23 on wide-open 3s in Game 1. They were at a much more modest 38.7 percent on such shots in the playoffs before that. To some extent, Boston’s shooting was just good luck.

But the Celtics have made their own luck all postseason. Whoever the defense ignores tends to fire away. Al Horford made six 3s in Game 1. Green was his primary defender, and on three of them, was either willing to give up the shot or otherwise occupied.

The thought process behind using Green on Horford is somewhat similar to Boston’s in throwing Smart on Green. The Celtics want Horford screening for their ball-handlers. Green scares them away because Boston knows he can handle anyone they have in a switch. Letting Horford fire isn’t an indefensible approach either. He shot below 34 percent on 3s this year. He’s played in 18 games this postseason and made one or fewer 3s in half of them. If the Warriors wanted to keep letting him shoot? They’d be playing with fire, but they’d be justified. Having Green available as a help defender is probably more important in the aggregate than running Horford off the line.

But I’d like to propose an alternative, at least in certain lineup constructions. Does Green necessarily need to defend Horford? It’s the easiest matchup from a positional standpoint, either in the starting alignments in which Kevon Looney and Robert Williams III play or the smaller units both sides will likely lean on, but Horford isn’t exactly known for punishing mismatches. He certainly can. His 30-point Game 4 against the Bucks proves that he can still summon explosive scoring games when he needs to, but less than 20 percent of his shots this postseason have come within three feet of the rim and he was a fairly low-volume post-up player in the regular season. Might the Warriors consider trying some of their bigger wings, like Thompson or Porter, on Horford? Green is likely better equipped for the sort of perimeter matchups they’d otherwise face anyway, and if there’s another spotty shooter the Warriors want to test (perhaps Derrick White?) they could experiment with Green nominally defending him, but letting him shoot in much the same manner he did Horford in Game 1.

The Warriors are going to have to make concessions somewhere, but there’s not an Andre Roberson for Green to sag off of here. Every rotation Celtic can shoot. Wherever Golden State sticks Green, it will either have to sacrifice some of his value as a help-defender or accept that his man might just make a bunch of 3s. No path is ideal. The Warriors have to figure out which one is most palatable.




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