SAN FRANCISCO — When darkness replaces fog and settles over the Bay Area on Monday, either the Celtics or the Warriors will officially be on the brink of the NBA Finals.
With the series tied at 2-2, the Finals are still missing straight wins by either team. Maybe that will finally happen with a successful homestand for the Warriors? Or will the Celtics let the flip-flops come?
Looking for clues for Game 5? Here are four to look for:
Does Steph Curry need help loading?
Who would have thought that a guard who is only 6ft 2 tall would have such a strong back and legs? Last but not least, Curry has proven that by carrying the Warriors not only in scoring but also in rebounds (he knocked down 10 in Game 4), playmaking and most importantly, presence.
It does wonders for Curry’s legacy, silencing his skeptics (if there are such kinds) and it tied the Warriors all in the finals despite underplaying some in the rotation. (Hello, Draymond Green.) But do the Warriors need more from others in these next few games to make it all worthwhile?
That’s Golden State’s job in Game 5. Curry’s unique dominance is similar to what LeBron James did for the Cavs, Dirk Nowitzki for the 2011 Mavericks, and in Golden State’s own franchise history Rick Barry for the 1974-75 champions Has. Curry’s scoring average is higher than the combined averages of the next two highest-scoring Warriors: 34.3 for Curry, 33.8 for Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins.
Realistically, that’s a task for Thompson and Jordan Poole from a points perspective. You are most qualified to get 25 points or more. If one gets hot, the Celtics are in trouble. If both reach 20 or more along with Curry, the Celtics are on the ropes.
As a footnote, Monday marks the three-year anniversary of Thompson’s knee injury against the Raptors in the 2019 finals. What better way to bury this moment in his memory than with comeback night? Here’s the thing: Golden State is tied despite a lack of help for Curry, meaning the Warriors may be due. They definitely haven’t played their best game yet, assuming such a game will happen.
Boston’s defense has something to do with it. Until now. Now we’ll see if a Klay Game or Poole Party is inevitable and will give the Warriors the advantage to return to Boston.
“Because we’re able to find our rhythm and get a few games behind us in this series, I definitely feel like there’s going to be an offensive explosion,” Poole said.
Expect the Celtics to adjust defensively and blame Curry
As much as conventional thinking would suggest otherwise, teams would prefer not to make any adjustments in the finals. It’s pretty late in the game for that, and it smacks of concern, if not panic. They prefer to stay true to themselves and their strengths and live or die with the results. Once the lineup changes and the strategies are adjusted, it becomes a bit out of character.
But perhaps the Celtics don’t have much of a choice, not because Curry is forcing them to reconsider their plans. Nothing has worked against him so far and the Celtics can either keep doubling him up and leaving others open – he gets his points anyway – or guard him directly and make sure no one else gets hot.
As a side note, this presents an interesting debate between Curry and Marcus Smart, Kia Defensive Player of the Year. With that award and reputation, shouldn’t Smart be good enough to slow Curry down? Or does legendary shooting trump any defense level?
The Warriors look for switches that give Curry a favorable advantage, and Smart is often turned off on screens. Curry also causes problems with his excellent off-ball movement, which allows him to get into his spots. There aren’t many players who can match him or match his speed.
“The way he can affect the game, being able to run around and play the ball and open up, it’s just tough for a defender because you can’t take a break,” Smart said. “The moment you think he’s not doing anything, that the play is over for him, you get hit.”
Boston will likely resort to getting physical with Curry and risk being on the wrong side of the ref’s whistle. With Curry on such a roll, perhaps the only realistic scenario is to hope and pray he misses.
The Celtics’ best defense is their better offense
Ime Udoka seemed to hint, and he made a good point, that it really doesn’t matter what Curry does…if the Celtics get their shots.
“Since we’re not playing our best offense overall, I think the narrative shifts to Curry and what he’s doing,” the Celtics coach said. “But in our wins and losses, (he) scores the same points. Every time you run a bad offense and turn the ball over, we know how quickly they can get back in the game.
Careless decision making and poor shooting doomed the Celtics in Game 2 and then came back in the fourth quarter of Game 4 to bite them again. Udoka believes that with better ball security and shot selection in pressure situations, the Celtics could take a 3-1 lead in the series.
“At least,” he said.
Udoka added, “They score about 107 points. Scored 100 points in a game. And when we scored well, we scored 120 and 116 goals. So our balance on offense has to be better.”
The Celtics rely heavily on their top three players to create their own shots. That’s because Smart, while obviously a solid player, isn’t a pure point guard who can beat his man from dribble and set up teammates. And when the ball isn’t in the hands of a traditional ball handler, mistakes can happen. Therefore, despite struggling, Tatum still needs to score points himself rather than being a finisher and getting easier hoops from passes.
Andrew Wiggins is tacitly a problem for Jayson Tatum
Not only is the Celtics frontrunner struggling with efficiency and facing a hostile arena on Monday, he will be staring at Wiggins again. It’s not the ideal time, place, or situation for Tatum to break free from the funk, but here we are.
One clarification is in order: Wiggins does not directly defend Tatum for an entire game. This is a collaborative effort because that’s how the Warriors do their business. But much like the previous playoff series against Dallas and Luka Doncic, Wiggins is the first line of defense (and occasionally turns Jaylen Brown on as well) and he’s building a solid reputation in the Finals.
“He’s made a leap in this playoff in terms of his impact on the game defensively and on the glass,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “He’s a two-way player. You have to have two players to make it this far. He’s grown by leaps and bounds and it’s exciting to watch that growth.”
Yes, Wiggins leads all rebounders in the Finals with an 8.5, but his defense is most important given how much is at stake and how playful Tatum came into this series. Hard to imagine the Celtics surviving if Tatum continues shooting 34%; He has yet to take 10 shots in a game.
Boston will look at using cheaper switches for Tatum, especially if those switches involve getting Curry on Tatum instead of Wiggins where the size advantage would be in their favor. As a bonus, Tatum can potentially get Curry in bad trouble.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can email him here, his archive can be found here and keep following him Twitter.
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