BOSTON — The Celtics had struggled through so many things in the NBA Finals, but one thing they hadn’t seen was crunch time. More precisely, a dynasty in Crunchtime.
The Celtics rolled on Friday when Jaylen Brown picked up a reckless pass from Steph Curry with 7 minutes and 39 seconds left and hit a circus shot to regain the lead with two possessions. But that didn’t last long. It rarely does against curry. It rarely applies to a group that has spent its entire career in the finals.
Boston would hit two shots the rest of the night as the Warriors went on a 21-6 run to send the Finals back to San Francisco after two games with a 107-97 win.
You’ve seen Curry so many times appear to be asleep and then suddenly explode before you see it coming. That’s why you always have to see it coming.
“You have to be aware, especially at the end. That’s the only guy you can’t hit,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “He took a lot of hard shots at us tonight. When you get a guy like that, some rhythm early on, those shots, the basketball hoop looks a little bigger to him. We just have to make a conscious effort to find him and Klay and their shooters, especially in the transition phase.”
The Celtics tried everything from blitzes to switches, but Curry was insurmountable. He already has the skill, the stamina and the drive. It can all be fulfilled and challenged, but then there is happiness.
Boston had a chance to finally level it after Jayson Tatum worked his way past Andrew Wiggins to find Al Horford in the corner for a 3-pointer with a minute and a half to go. Then, as Derrick White baited Curry again and Tatum attempted to blitz Curry down the middle, Boston’s backside rotations were flawless, forcing a miss from Klay Thompson.
But then, with Horford in perfect box-out position, the rebound sailed over his head into the hands of Draymond Green. Tatum attacked Curry again, but this time they gently surrounded him instead of overrunning and ambushing him. It was too easy for Curry to praise it over White to Green, who dropped it for Kevon Looney to finish right over Horford and restore the two-possession lead for the last time.
There has been constant discussion about Boston’s drop coverages of curry pick-and-rolls, calling for a hard show or an open blitz. Mixing variations of up-to-touch and deep-drop schemes with some secured switches, the Celtics always find a way to keep one defender on curry and one under-screen to zone under. Celtics coach Ime Udoka wants to take away the easy 2s and keep his defense out of the rotation as much as possible, knowing that as a collective the Warriors can bury them even if they stop Curry.
That final looney layup showed exactly why they’re so reluctant to blitz.
“Sometimes we obviously focus on him and keep others at bay. But some of it was some crazy shots he did that were very controversial,” Udoka said of Curry. “You look at the totals, the attempts to take those down, it’s the number we don’t like, the 14 tries in general.
“He came out early and bombed, had nine in the first half. Some of the 3s he hit were hard fought and there’s nothing you can do about them. When we switched there were a few cross matches and guys on the rim. Followed him a little later. They did a few plays.”
Although the Celtics offense once again fell into a stalemate in search of mismatches, this first fraction of the finals round shed light on the stylistic differences between the leaders of these teams. Brown loves to push the tempo and often shifts plays with ball pressure and leaks. Tatum will often slow things down to get the matchup and leverage angle he wants to find his points. But when the Celtics aren’t running turnovers, they tend to get bogged down trying to slow the pace and shut down the shot clock.
Brown said they need to stop being rushed into the clutch, but it’s often their own business, starting their games late to give themselves options. As a result, the Warriors still run off defensive rebounds later in the game and borrow from the Splash Bros’ best tendencies.
When Robert Williams injured his knee on landing while denying a Jordan Poole layup with just under five minutes remaining, the Warriors had their moment to turn the game around with their pace. Williams shuffled up and down the floor and seemed to call for a sub, but it didn’t come. Udoka said after the game he didn’t see or hear anything with Williams, but the Warriors saw it.
On her next possession, Curry grabbed the rebound and immediately pressed. He walked out to the wing and then dribbled back to the other side of the floor to drag down as many back-kicking defenders as Looney and Thompson interrupted him. Curry yanked Brown and Tatum away from an open Thompson and then Williams tried as best he could to close to no avail.
After another miss from Brown, Curry got into an early transition high pick and roll with Looney to bring Williams to the edge and kept the action running until he islanded Williams and so easily tackled passed him that the limping Williams had simply given up.
— NBA (@NBA) June 11, 2022
Early attacks, second chances, beat discrepancies. Curry knew the way and took control of the game for the umpteenth time in these finals with just a few possessions.
On a night when one of the greatest players of all time had what Thompson called the best finals game of his life, the Celtics realized that the constant urge to go from good to great to champions will require them to evolve develop to the end.
“I’ve said it before, it’s hard to win,” Horford said. “Winning is hard and there are moments when we form a team, even now as a group. This is another challenge, another opportunity for us to embrace this and get better.”
It really was all on Curry’s shoulders. With a 33.6 percent usage rate for Curry, only LeBron James has been higher in an NBA Finals since Kobe Bryant defeated the Celtics in 2010, according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. Thompson and Wiggins were so good all night and Green finally found a way to make winning plays when Warriors coach Steve Kerr decided to bring him back for crunch time.
Curry was on another level that nobody has reached in these finals. The Celtics can’t keep up with that now. You are not there yet. Tatum and Brown are great at times, but the Warriors looked like the team they’ve always been, winning titles for years. Now that the Celtics have seen what the Warriors do in the heat of their toughest moments, they need to take it to the next level.
“Overall, we’ve learned and grown from every experience we have,” Brown said. “These opportunities to now play at the highest level on one of the biggest stages (are) also moments for learning. Sometimes on nights like today it’s hard to bear a heavy loss on our home soil. We have to have short term memory and prepare for the next game, come out and play Celtics basketball.”
The upside is that Boston has always responded. Game 3 was their first test to reassert themselves in the finals and they pulled it off. This moment is different. Game 2 was over before the fourth quarter had even started. Game 4 showed that the Warriors can get them on the wire and come out on top. The Celtics have so often looked like the better team, simply brought down by those notable quick curry outbursts, but they can limit them to just a couple of times per game.
Now they know that the longer Golden State is in the game, the more curry is to come.
“But it is the final, the art of competition. They came here feeling like they had to win,” Tatum said. “It was’nt easy. I think that’s kind of the beauty of it, it’s not going to be easy. That should not be.”
(Photo by Steph Curry and Al Horford: Kyle Terada / USA Today)