As Derrick White spun to find an open teammate, Jaylen Brown flashed to the basket. His defender Klay Thompson was caught watching the ball for a brief moment. It just didn’t matter.
It’s unclear if Thompson and Draymond Green were scheduled to tune in to the play, which can be seen below. It’s clear Thompson lost track of Brown’s whereabouts for a split second, but a hyper-observant Green slid over to sweep away what would have been a simple bucket. Instead of hitting home an undisputed dunk, Brown bent a runner over Green’s outstretched arm.
The shot ricocheted off the front of the rim, just another empty possession for the Celtics. In five games of the NBA Finals, Boston has averaged 107.3 points per 100 possessions, an offensive efficiency that would have equaled 27th in the regular season. Considering the Celtics have shot a mighty 41 percent on a high number of 3-point attempts, the vast majority of their offensive problems come from the arc. From Jayson Tatum to Al Horford and beyond, they just haven’t been able to consistently score near the hoop. Where have all the simplest points gone? And how can Boston find ways to produce them against a disruptive, intelligent Warriors defense?
Not blessed with interior size like the Bucks in Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Warriors wall off the perimeter in other ways. They’ve held the Celtics to 37.1 points in the paint per 100 possessions during that streak, which would have easily tied bottom in the NBA in the regular season.
The problem begins in the transition phase, where Boston has barely scored. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics have averaged just 98.2 points per 100 transition plays, miles below the league’s playoff average of 124.4. The lack of fast-break success helps explain why Tatum, who has dunk once a game in the regular season, hasn’t thrown in the first five games of the finals. To make matters worse, the Celtics have only been in transition for 12.9 percent of their ownership this series, which is below par even by the slower postseason standards. When asked how his team could improve their distance, Brown was quick to suggest they needed to do more to pick up the pace.
“Play harder,” Brown said. “Sprint, stand up. (Don’t let) the shot clock shrink down before we get on our offense, take a late shot. Increase our pace. Play much harder. I think that would help us and benefit us a lot.”
On the half court, the Celtics know what to expect from the Warriors.
“Their rotations are pretty direct every time,” said Ime Udoka. “The guy will be there. It’s just about doing the reading.”
More specifically, Udoka explained how the Warriors intend to rotate.
“It’s quite set,” he said. “You will be there every time. Low man will come across, crack back, the guy who plays the back.
It looks like this:
Green is one of the best Help defenders of all time. He is a master of angles and twists. He knows when to call for help. He knows when to bluff rather than commit fully. In that game, he stole a huge chance from the Celtics by hitting Brown outside the restricted area. Behind Green, Nemanja Bjelica slipped down to ensure Robert Williams wasn’t available for an easy throw. Brown wanted to be aggressive with Jordan Poole. That was supposed to be a matchup for the Celtics to chase, but Brown couldn’t find a lead to hoop. As the shot clock ticked down, he tried to play for himself.
Tatum (50 percent true shooting) and Brown (51.4 percent) have not even reached their normal efficiency. For Tatum, who makes almost half of his 3-point attempts in the series, almost all of the fighting has come from inside the arc, where he shoots a low 30.6 percent. He’s attempted just 14 shots from the restricted area in all series and made seven of them. At times he seemed frustrated with the lack of options.
Making the right play repeatedly is not easy. Tatum should have read the defense much better here. Andrew Wiggins made no secret of his plans. He hardly had to react to Tatum’s drive because Tatum dribbled straight at him.
Like Brown, Tatum suggested the Celtics needed to find more transition opportunities.
“They (play) half court, let them build up their defense, they’re really, really good,” Tatum said. “I think it obviously starts with getting stops, then kicking the ball forward when you stop and playing in transition. Even if you don’t score, just put pressure on the defense, then bring them back out and set something up. Getting the ball up and things like that, it’s hard to score.
The warriors have weaknesses. They just cover them really well. Most of their perimeter players are smart and physical. Kevon Looney seems to be in the right place forever. If Green is able to act as a kind of free security, he can almost completely turn off the color himself.
It was in that possession that the Celtics found a size imbalance when Steph Curry switched to Brown. With more space, Brown could have used his size, strength and athleticism to find a path to the rim. Instead, Green dashed all hopes of a drive by essentially ignoring White at the top end of the key. Brown, clearly noticing Green lurking, decided on a pull-up with a dribble that missed badly.
“Golden State is a good defensive team,” Brown said. “We know and understand that. So be patient. You watch the game as best you can. You get your distance, you play with a little more speed. I think you get stuck in the half field, that makes it much more difficult for you. You are a good team. This is the highest level. So we just have to find ways to get better. We need to find ways to be more successful at that end.”
Golden State’s great defense has robbed Boston of much of what it wants, but the Celtics still left some opportunities on the court. Early in the fourth quarter of Game 5, before the Warriors started a game-changing 10-0 run, Tatum had a chance to put his team ahead.
Tatum had the right situation there to be aggressive. With Looney making the switch and Green Brown unlikely to be left in the corner, Tatum knew help would come from a smaller defender. He narrowly missed the layup over Thompson.
“Thanks to Green and what he’s doing throwing guys off balance, faking and falling, taking some lobs away,” Udoka said. “For us, it’s really the physicality of our surfaces. I think we were out of balance and not up the most. Up close we missed a few that we would normally do.”
At their best this series, the Celtics have shown the patience needed to beat Golden State’s help. Most of the time this has resulted in open 3-pointers instead of layups. Udoka said that’s because the Warriors are “all connected” on defense.
“The kickouts are maybe more open than the dropoffs in this series,” Udoka said, “because they’re really good at handling the rotations.”
This is where Tatum captured all of Green’s attention before finding Horford near the tip of the key:
Just look at Green in this game. With him and Looney on the prowl, the Celtics could continue to struggle on the fringe for the remainder of the series. They can always be sharper to create more efficient openings. Having fallen apart offensively in each of the past two fourth quarters, they know where to improve.
“We want to focus on the offensive,” said Udoka. “Because I think we guarded enough to win.”
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(Photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today)