For the fourth time in their two-month playoff run, the Boston Celtics sit on the brink of elimination. Dismal first and fourth quarters in Game 5 sent them back home with a 104-94 defeat, the first occurrence of this postseason in which they’ve suffered consecutive losses.
The Golden State Warriors reclaimed homecourt advantage with their Game 4 win and protected it Monday. Now, Boston must do the same to reach a Game 7 for the third straight round.
Intriguing storylines are aplenty in this series. Let’s hit on some of the most relevant ones ahead of Thursday’s crucial Game 6.
Does the All-Star version of Draymond Green persist?
Despite some dominant defensive showings in prior outings, Game 5 was quite comfortably Draymond Green’s finest of the Finals. He kept the offense spinning with daring, well-placed passing reads, took shots when necessary (eight points on 3-for-6 shooting) and crafted an all-around superb defensive performance. At one point, he identified room to drive, attacked Derrick White off the dribble and tossed in a floater.
While the four-time All-Star is still searching for his first long ball of the series, his limited scoring didn’t hamper the offense as often as it had through the initial four games. He attacked space when afforded it and occasionally pushed in transition to pressure Boston, while balancing aggressive facilitating and caretaker decision-making (six dimes, two turnovers).
The bedrock of Golden State’s championship efforts is its defense. But instances like Monday, where Green pairs his wide-ranging, historic defense with tenable offensive contributions, ensure he’s an All-Star-caliber forward worth playing as much as possible in high-leverage spots.
It is by no means a coincidence that his best nights of this series have been Games 2 and 5, the two contests the Warriors have won convincingly. At his current peak, Green remains this team’s second-best player (even if it’s been Andrew Wiggins in the postseason). One more star-adjacent act could solidify Golden State’s fourth ring in eight seasons.
What type of defensive coverage does Stephen Curry see?
In Game 5, for the first time all series, the Celtics, over a prolonged stretch, deviated from their drop coverage against Curry. That alteration played into Green’s Game 5 renaissance, as well as productive scoring games from Wiggins (26 points), Klay Thompson (21 points), Gary Payton II (15 points), and Jordan Poole (14 points).
That the Warriors won amid Curry’s 7-for-22, 0-for-9 downfall speaks to the way Boston selling out against him more often opened up chances elsewhere. Whereas they’d almost exclusively adhered to dropping and switching through four games, the Celtics trapped and doubled him much more frequently on Monday. Everyone else saw room to breathe.
In fact, Golden State’s 118.7 offensive rating with Curry on the floor was its second-highest of the series thus far, despite his individual struggles. Changing the scheme invited his passing to shine and helped others flourish in advantageous scenarios.
Boston’s drop coverage had enabled Curry to prosper, but avoided sending extra bodies and scrambling into catch-up mode. A return to normalcy from Curry against the increasingly aggressive defense could spell doom for the Celtics.
Ime Udoka and his players have proven rather adaptable all season, so there’s absolutely a chance they revert to drop and switching, while scrapping the trapping. But the type of coverage they employ is an important wrinkle to monitor. If Curry and his supporting cast cook on Thursday, that might be all she wrote for the 2021-22 NBA season.
Can Al Horford and Marcus Smart get going as playmakers?
In Boston’s three best games of this series (including Game 4’s narrow loss), Al Horford has tallied 13 assists. In its two blowout defeats, he has two. The Warriors have done well to shrink his space attacking closeouts, while also deterring threes.
He’s such a valuable connective player for the Celtics’ offense. His quiet nights are stalling their chances of success. Of course, he is not a creator on his own, so some of his struggles are tied to Boston’s overall constraints.
But when Golden State goes small and starts Otto Porter Jr. or stashes someone like Thompson on him, he and Boston have to make exploiting those decisions a priority. Fire from deep over smaller guys. Continue to leak out in transition and engender quick, deep seals, a la Game 3 — though, to Golden State’s credit, it’s bottling up the Celtics on the break.
If the Warriors are going to flood the gaps in help to barricade the paint, Horford cannot be passive, as he was in Game 5. Force them to reconsider that gambit by letting it fly beyond the arc. When Boston demands closeouts, the offense flows well. When Golden State is content to sag off, the offense stagnates.
Marcus Smart, meanwhile, is having a very good Finals. His lows have not been as prevalent or deep as Horford’s. He’s posting 16-4-4-1, featuring four games with 18 or more points, on 56.7 percent true shooting. But his Game 5, even with a 20-3-2 box score, was below his standards.
He coughed up four turnovers and amassed just two assists, his fewest of the Finals. Smart’s intrepid passing style is integral to Boston’s offense, which generated a stuck-in-the-mud 95.9 offensive rating in Game 5. Udoka’s decision to provide him more on-ball reps over the second half of the year massively factored into the Celtics’ offensive turnaround.
Game 5, though, saw his passing drift from intrepid to erratic. Boston is averaging 12 turnovers in its Finals wins and 17 in its losses. Smart’s trapeze act of confident vs. reckless passing ties into that dichotomy. He and Tatum are the team’s lone two ball-handlers who can both attack from a standstill and dependably table-set for others.
Possessions are such a premium against this vaunted defense that even dead ball giveaways (as Smart’s were) can be critically damaging. The offense is stalling as is, let alone when shots aren’t attempted.
His scoring was quite good Monday, though the passing is really what amplifies the Celtics and he fell short there. To stave off elimination, they’ll need it to be much better.
How do he Celtics unlock improved interior scoring?
Among the grandest disparities in Game 5 was two-point scoring. The Celtics went 20-for-43 (46.5 percent), while the Warriors were a sterling 32-for-48 (66.6 percent). Further, Boston scored 27 points on its 54 drives with five turnovers, compared to Golden State scoring 27 points on 35 drives with zero turnovers, per NBA.com.
The Warriors clearly won the battle at the point-of-attack, applying pressure on the catch, crowding drives with physical stunts and bottling up the Celtics’ efforts to generate downhill separation. So much of what Boston accomplished offensively felt laborious and unreliable.
Golden State is exploiting the lack of truly threatening shooting from Boston’s complementary players. Horford, Smart, Derrick White, and Grant Williams are all often granted space to fire. Some way, somehow, the Celtics have to manufacture newfound real estate for drives.
One solution: weak-side actions involving Jaylen Brown, whose shooting prowess the Warriors do offer respect. Running it for other players like Smart or White may not concern the defense to occupy it away from stunts. But Brown’s presence clearly warrants attention from Golden State.
Wonder if we see more weak-side actions like this from Boston to occupy helpers and open driving lanes moving forward: pic.twitter.com/viKG4TxuDS
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) June 14, 2022
Another option: second-side actions with an empty wing to minimize the chance of those pesky stunts.
This set doesn’t amount to anything because Golden State’s rotations are superb (shoot it, Tatum!), but leveraging the luxury of multiple ball-handlers could bear some fruitful results. The outline of more possessions like this is probably worth replicating.
At the very least, the Celtics’ current offensive ideals are glaringly flawed against the Warriors. It places far too much onus on the defense being nearly perfect. This team may be up to the task, yet widening the margin for error could have benefits and perhaps push this series to a do-or-die Game 7.