The NBA Finals: Three adjustments Warriors can make as they try to tie a string with the Celtics in Game 2

The NBA Finals: Three adjustments Warriors can make as they try to tie a string with the Celtics in Game 2

If a win in the first game had guaranteed a streak victory, the Boston Celtics would have been out of the playoffs long ago. They lost the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Miami Heat. They lost their first game of the second round to the Milwaukee Bucks. They almost lost their first game of the first round against the Brooklyn Nets. They have won all three series. They may not win this.

Golden State Warriors knows all too well how quickly things can change in the Finals. Although the winner of Game One has won four of his five Finals series, he edged out the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-1 in the 2016 Finals. No team makes it to the Finals by chance. The opponent’s caliber virtually guarantees a changing scene for each game after the other. Both Warriors and Celtics are good enough and versatile for commercial straw makers for a full seven games. The seventh, if we got there, wouldn’t look like the first.

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

1. Determine the mismatch

Marcus Smart is expected to spend more time guarding Stephen Curry than any other warrior. NBA.com data tracks 29.2 defensive properties on the Curry to Smart, but you probably can’t guess which Warrior got the second most attention from the Defensive Player of the Year. Hint: none of their other guards were.

No, it was Golden State’s attack center: Draymond Green. This move was unconventional, but ruthlessly logical. Green will not give a size advantage over Smart. Even if he was a good enough scorer to cash in on the match, Smart wouldn’t allow it. We are talking about a goalkeeper who outlasted Giannis Antetokounmue. Green was not going to test it. This is not even his job in contravention. Golden State manages the bulk of Green’s pickup and delivery traffic to compensate for his throwing restrictions and to increase his basketball IQ. He has the go-ahead to fake a screen delivery or drop when he sees the opportunity, but overall, his job is to prepare Carrie and friends for easier shots. The problem Golden State had in Game 1 was that Green’s clever defense meant he could pass on to any ball player he tried to dance with. Watch how a frustrated Curry makes an offensive blunder trying to stay smart off the switch:

Jordan Paul didn’t do much better when he tried to use Kevin Looney as his coordinator and also came face to face with Smart:

This is a problem for Golden State on several levels, not least Green’s injury rate of 29.6 percent behind the arc. If Green wasn’t acting as a pivot, it would be very difficult to find uses for him offensively. There are only so many cutting and connecting passes that a player can make when the defense doesn’t really have to guard it. Warriors can mitigate this by limiting Green’s minutes along with other Archers. This might not be from Andre Iguodala’s series, for example. But the broader problem here is Golden State’s lack of interest in switch hunting. It is antithetical to their equally offensive philosophy. Let James Harden, LeBron James and Luka Doncic find their matches. Golden State wants to run its affairs against anyone who dares to defend it.

It didn’t work in the first game. There is a middle ground to be found here, but it should be noted that there is no “good” answer here exactly. Milwaukee settled on Jaylen Brown as the preferred target because he did not consider him strong enough for Antetokounmpo. The Heat landed Derek White as too young to rival Jimmy Butler. Payton Pritchard would probably be a wise place to start, but Boston would prefer not to leave him on the ground against Curry for extended periods, and Paul wasn’t nearly as good against him as the Warriors had hoped.

This is a match worth looking into in Game 2 if Boston continues to deliver, and the general concept of tiny little trains is worth exploring if Carrie, Paul, and Clay Thompson can only wreak potential havoc. Unlike that? All of Boston’s seven primary spinners are nearly all All-Defense calibers. It’s just going to be about finding the one who has the worst of dealing with ball players in the Golden State. Could that be Grant Williams? He just spent two rounds hitting with Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo. Chasing Curry and Thompson may be a different sport.

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

2. Let’s mess around with a little spin

Yes, yes, I know, I just suggested limiting Green’s minutes along to non-shooters, and yes, I know Gary Payton II had a rickety jump even before he broke his elbow. There is nothing to tell us about the state of filming right now. But let me.

The Celtics average 13.5 games per 100 possessions in their playoff victories. They averaged a turnover of 16.8 per 100 ownership in their playoff losses. Sure, the points created by those shifts directly help, but they also seem to have a psychological impact on Boston’s crime. Watch the Celtics in their lowest moments in front of The Heat in particular and you’ll see an offense that dreads its shadow, shoots ill-advised shots and slashes into some of the laziest pick-six you’ll ever see. The Celtics are a jump team. Fluctuations ruin the rhythm. Payton is a spinning machine. Golden State produced 16.7 of them for every 100 holdings with him on the ground in the regular season and 13.4 without him. This gap of 3.3 turnovers per 100 holdings is the exact gap between Boston’s gains and losses.

Boston will not guard him. And the Celts were barely guarding Iguodala either. Maybe a little Nemanja Bjelica can balance the spacing issues? He defended well in the Dallas series, and Boston had no threat of pick-and-roll like Luka Doncic’s imposing. The Celtics were a mediocre isolation offense in the playoffs and were slightly worse in the regular season. The warriors would probably live with them as they tried to punish Belika one-on-one for a long time.

When Golden State last reached the Finals, he did so with a very slim roster. The loss of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson wasn’t in and of itself what wiped out the Warriors. Remember, Golden State almost forced a 7 against Toronto without them. But the payroll was so heavy and minutes were so scarce outside of its core that it couldn’t afford experienced backups and couldn’t develop younger hardware. Swap Otto Porter Jr. for Alfonzo McKinney and the Warriors might win the 2019 Championship. This list does not contain this issue. James Wiseman is the only player on this list who is out of the equation now. Payton, Bellica, Juan Toscano Anderson, Moses Moody and Jonathan Cominga could get chances against the Celtics. All of this brings very specific strengths and weaknesses to the negotiating table. It is up to Steve Kerr to figure out how best to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses. Somewhere on this list there is a rotation that can beat Boston. Of course, if the Celtics made 21 3s, there might not be a list anywhere to hang them with.

3. Determine How to Defend Boston’s Reward

Draymond Green did not approve of the hot shooting in Boston. “They hit 21 3s, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, and Derek White combined for 15,” He said. “These guys are good shooters, but come together for what, 15 out of eight, smart seven, eight, 15 versus 23. Is my math right? Eight, seven and eight. Eight, seven and eight. Yeah, that’s 23, right? Fifteen versus 23 of these guys… eh, we’ll be fine.

The defenses played the “Boston can’t keep shooting like this” card every post-season. Remember when the Bucks turned down Grant Williams in Game Seven of the second round only to watch him make seven three-pointers in the win? Moments like this make it easy to forget that he’s shot 2 of 14 out of 3 in the previous four games. The Celtics hit 13 of 23 in 3 seconds wide open in the first game. And they were 38.7 percent more modest on such shots in the playoffs before that. To some extent, the Boston shooting was just good luck.

But the Celtics had their luck throughout the postseason. Anyone ignored by the defense tends to be fired. Al Horford made 6 3s in the first game. Green was the primary defender, and in three of them, he was either willing to drop the shot or otherwise occupy it.

The thought process behind using Green on Horford is somewhat similar to Boston’s method of throwing Smart on Green. The Celtics want Horford to screen their ball players. Green scares them away because Boston knows he can handle anyone they have in the switch. Leaving the Horford Fire off isn’t an untenable approach either. He’s shot just under 34 percent in 3 seconds this year. He has played in 18 games this post season and has done 1 or less 3 seconds in half of them. If the warriors wanted to keep letting him shoot? They will play with fire, but that will be justified. Green’s presence as an assistant defender will likely be more important on the aggregate than keeping Horford off the line.

But I would suggest an alternative, at least in certain lineup configurations. Does Green necessarily need to defend Horford? It’s the easiest match from a positioning standpoint, either in starting alliances featuring Kevon Looney and Robert Williams III or smaller units both sides are more likely to rely on, but Horford isn’t exactly known for penalizing mismatches. He certainly can. His 4 30-point game against the Bucks proved he could still call explosive scoring games when he needed to, but less than 20 percent of his post-season shots were within three feet of the edge and it was a fairly low-volume turn. Highest player in the regular season. Could the Warriors consider trying some of their larger wings, like a Thompson or Porter, on Horford? Green would probably be better equipped for the kind of ambient matches they might encounter anyway, and if there was another choppy shooter the Warriors wanted to test (maybe Derek White?) they could nominally try Green to defend him, but let him shoot too often The same way Horford did in Game 1.

Warriors will have to compromise somewhere, but there is no Andre Roberson for Green to back off from here. Each Celtic can take turns shooting. Wherever Golden State sticks to the green, he will either have to sacrifice some of his value as an assistant defender or accept that his man might make a set of 3s. There is no perfect path. Warriors must figure out which is more acceptable.

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