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The Boston Celtics are up 2-1 in the 2022 NBA Finals. Ahead of Friday’s Game 4, the numbers facing the Golden State Warriors are daunting.
Historically, teams that won Game 3 of a deadlocked Finals have gone on to win the series 82 percent of the time. FiveThirtyEight’s projection system gives the Celtics an 88 percent chance to win the title. ESPN’s system has them at 91.3.
No, the Warriors aren’t done yet. The last time they looked this physically outmatched—the 2016 Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder—they overcame a 3-1 lead. It’s foolish to count out Stephen Curry until he’s out.
But let’s be honest: It feels like Boston is in control. And every time their grip has seemingly loosened throughout the postseason, the Celtics have quickly found a way to make the necessary adjustments, regain their composure and keep on winning.
This pattern even precedes the postseason. Fifty games into 2021-22, Boston was .500. Celtics superfan Bill Simmons said he needed a “break” from the team. The Sporting News and FanNation both expressed a need for “change.” First-year coach Ime Udoka was frustrated. A lot.
Then, the players started to get comfortable with Udoka’s switch-heavy scheme. Jayson Tatum’s effective field-goal percentage skyrocketed after December 1. The front office acquired Derrick White on Feb. 10. And Boston looked like a juggernaut for the rest of the regular season.
The Celtics have had occasional departures from that identity throughout the playoffs, but those spells never linger.
The Brooklyn Nets kept things close in Game 1 of the first round largely due to Kyrie Irving’s 39 points. Then, Boston made him more exclusively Marcus Smart’s assignment (after it was split fairly evenly between Smart and Jaylen Brown in Game 1).
For the rest of the sweep, Kyrie averaged 15.3 points and shot 37.2 percent from the field. Versatile, positionless defenders such as Tatum, Brown and Grant Williams made things difficult on Kevin Durant too (he shot 38.6 percent from the field in the series).
The next round, Boston lost Game 1 to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. For the rest of the series, the Celtics shored up their wall against Giannis with Al Horford and Robert Williams III and took a smaller percentage of their shots from the mid-range (27.4 percent in Game 1, compared to 20.5 percent the rest of the way).
Against the Miami Heat, the Celtics bounced back from a disappointing Game 6 loss, took a little better care of the ball in Game 7 and overcame gargantuan production from Jimmy Butler.
And now, on the biggest stage of all, Boston continues to counterpunch better than anyone.
Udoka has tinkered with his team’s drop coverage against Curry pick-and-rolls.
In Game 3, he was quick to go small, pulling Robert Williams a few minutes into the first and third quarters.
The Celtics also more aggressively attacked Draymond Green. On one possession, Brown went so far as to wave off a ball screen to be able to go at Green in a straight-up isolation.
Kevin O’Connor @KevinOConnorNBA
In the NBA Finals, Draymond Green is allowing 1.24 points per play when he’s the direct defender, which is his worst of any playoff series since 2013-14, per <a href=”https://twitter.com/SecondSpectrum?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@SecondSpectrum</a>. <a href=”https://t.co/f3No6dgSbY”>pic.twitter.com/f3No6dgSbY</a>
With Green being targeted on defense and providing almost nothing on the other end, Boston might force Warriors coach Steve Kerr to make a tough call. Green is minus-seven for the series. Kevon Looney is a Golden State-high plus-15.
If he does, you can be sure Boston will counter again, as it has all postseason. Looney’s had a fantastic playoff run, but can he hold up against Horford and the Celtics’ one-big lineups on the perimeter?
The Celtics have answered every question that’s come their way for the last several months, and they can create some that might be unanswerable for their final opponent.
The brilliance of this roster’s construction is on vivid display.
Boston starts with a more traditional, two-big lineup, but even that is a little misleading, thanks to Horford’s versatility. The other three starters, Smart, Tatum and Brown are ultimately positionless. With the exception of Payton Pritchard, who’s exclusively a guard, their main reserves (Pritchard, White and Grant Williams) only add to the versatility.
No one in the league checks more boxes. Old school and new. Wings and bigs. Perimeter and interior defense. Shooting. Two volume scorers. And at least one superstar.
It’s not hard to see why the Celtics have responded so well throughout the postseason (they’ve yet to lose two games in a row).
And while Curry is the best individual player in the series, it’s getting harder to envision him overcoming everything Boston can do (and has done).
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