BOSTON — If the Steph Curry late-fourth-quarter foot sprain turns into the defining moment of the NBA Finals, if it either sidelines or hinders Curry’s impact enough to send the Warriors quietly into their summer without a fourth title, they have a failed box-out to blame.
Jayson Tatum posted up Klay Thompson with 4:20 left and the Celtics up 12. Boston eventually won 116-100 to jump up 2-1 in the series. But, at this particular point, the Warriors still had faint life. They’d just need to pitch a near-perfect game in the final four minutes.
Thompson started it with sturdy defense on Tatum, forcing a 14-foot contested miss. But watch Marcus Smart crashing in from the perimeter. Jordan Poole barely tags him on the way past, while Curry and Andrew Wiggins ball-watch, allowing Smart to slip right between and whack the rebound into a loose-ball scramble.
That set off a pinball chain of events that ended with Al Horford’s weight coming down on Curry’s left foot. Curry lightly limped out of the arena near 1 a.m., grimacing whenever he put weight on a left foot sprain he said was more mild but similar to the injury he suffered against Boston in March, forcing him to miss a month.
“I don’t feel like I’ll miss a game,” Curry said. “Take advantage of these next 48 hours to get ready.”
It’s too early to know the full ramifications of that failed box-out and the resulting injury. But the sequence serves as the punctuation point of the Warriors’ largest Game 3 problem. They didn’t bring force. They didn’t play physical basketball. They didn’t box out often enough. They were crushed on the glass.
“Like shit,” Draymond Green said when asked how he played. “I was soft.”
The Celtics had only 13 total offensive rebounds in the two San Francisco games — six in the first, seven in the second. That’s a manageable amount. They’ve been protecting the glass well most of the playoffs and especially lately. The Mavericks had only nine, four, seven, four and six offensive rebounds in their five conference finals games against the Warriors.
In Game 3, the Celtics had 15 offensive rebounds. They grabbed back 40.8 percent of their misses. That’s a dominant number, and the film tells an ugly story for the Warriors on the interior, where they were outscored 22-11 in second-chance points and 52-26 in the paint.
Here is the first of Boston’s 15 offensive rebounds. Robert Williams slips past an inattentive Draymond Green, gets inside leverage over him and Kevon Looney and grabs back a missed jumper. Another scramble ensues, but the Celtics outmaneuver the Warriors and eventually get it out to Jaylen Brown for a made 3, the first three of their 22 second-chance points.
“We lost every 50-50 battle today that we’ve been winning most of the playoffs,” Looney said.
The lone Warriors win in this series was partly defined by Green’s amped-up attitude and physicality. As he goes, emotionally, his teammates often follow. Green’s energy and impact have been low in the two losses. He finished with two points, four rebounds, three assists and six fouls in Game 3.
Here Green is on Williams early in the second quarter. Williams shoots a 7-foot hook shot from just outside the paint. He doesn’t have the best touch, so this isn’t an awful result for the Warriors. He leaves it short.
But Williams gets it back for a closer hook and a converted layup because Green doesn’t go into his body for a box-out after the first miss. He instead wanders toward the rim and watches the rebound bounce over his head. This is an uncharacteristic Green mistake.
The Warriors throttled the Celtics in the meat of the third quarter again, climbing all the way back from that 17-point hole to briefly take the lead. But the deciding stretch came late in the third quarter and early in the fourth when Grant Williams kept beating the Warriors to offensive rebounds and Boston regained control of the game.
This is the first of what would be three Grant Williams offensive rebounds during that breakaway stretch. Tatum misses a 3 from the right wing, but, again, Wiggins and Otto Porter Jr. fail to get a body on a collapsing Celtics player. Grant Williams slips right between them and tips it over to Robert Williams, who shovels it back and forces a shooting foul.
This is the third of those three Grant Williams offensive rebounds. It comes early in the fourth quarter. The Celtics have stretched the lead to nine. The game is slipping quickly from the Warriors. They leave Marcus Smart wide open on a corner 3, but he misses.
Grab the defensive rebound, score on the ensuing possession and the situation might feel a bit more stable. But Gary Payton II, Poole and basically anybody else in the mosh pit again fail to put a body on Grant Williams, who is playing more physically than anybody on the court. He snags it, lays it in and puts the Celtics up 11, forcing a Steve Kerr timeout.
Considering the defensive rebounding issues, it’s fair to wonder why Kevon Looney received only 17 minutes. Looney had seven rebounds in those 17 minutes and has been one of the league’s best rebounders in these playoffs, but Kerr opted to chase down this game with mostly small-ball lineup combinations.
“We have to factor in what’s happening on the floor, what we need,” Kerr said. “Do we need floor spacing? Do we need better rebounding? And we were kind of plugging holes tonight. They did a good job. They earned the win. They put a lot of pressure on us, and (it) felt like we were kind of swimming upstream most of the night. So we weren’t able to find that two-way combination other than that stretch in the third when Steph really got hot. Couldn’t find the right combination to strike that balance.”
When the Warriors bench Looney and do go small, Green, Porter and Wiggins must handle the defensive rebounding responsibility. Wiggins had seven rebounds. Green had four. Porter had only one. Payton had one. Collectively, they were weak on the interior and lost the game — and potentially the series, considering Curry’s unknown status — because of it.
(Photo of Grant Williams grabbing a key rebound in the deciding stretch against the Warriors: Elsa / pool via USA Today)
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