September 29, 2022

There were plenty of stories that made headlines from the 2022 NBA Finals: Stephen Curry’s brilliance; the juice of Jaylen Brown and the inner bullying of Robert Williams III; the takeover of Andrew Wiggins and the return of #StrengthInNumbers. The the biggest The story of these Finals, however, is the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum-led offense – its form, its function and, increasingly, its fracture, especially late in games.

The Celtics won Game 1 after an avalanche in the fourth quarter – going small, widening the ground and burying the Warriors with a 3-point barrage. Since then, however, Boston has been largely unable to generate a consistent late-game offense, failing to eclipse 25 points in the fourth quarters of Games 2-5 and scoring just 95.6 points per 100 possessions in the last four. final frames – an offensive level ineptitude on par with the Sixers mid-process. Those struggles have pushed the Eastern Conference champions to the brink as they return home for Game 6 on Thursday, potentially 48 minutes from the end of their season.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Celtics big man Al Horford said after Game 5 on Monday. “This is the moment when we look each other in the eye and we have to understand it. We have an opportunity now. I have to understand. There is no tomorrow for us.

Boston’s defense, by far the best in the NBA during the regular season, played mostly as advertised in the championship round. With the exception of the Game 2 onslaught that saved Curry and Co. from a 0-2 loss at home, the Celtics have largely kept the Warriors under wraps, keeping them just 93.9 points per 100 games in the half court, according to Clean the glass; who would have ranked 21st in the league this season.

That meat grinder half-court defense — so adept at shutting off off-ball screens, neutralizing Golden State split-plays and stealth cuts, suppressing airspace, and essentially forcing Curry to be superhuman to generate points – has given the Celtics a chance to win every game in this series. The problem, as always, has been their ability to dungeon the half-court game: Boston turned the ball over on 17.2% of its offensive possessions in the Finals and gave up 20.6 points per game on those coughs, both of which would have been close to the NBA’s worst ratings in the season regular.

The C’s predilection for live-ball turnovers — lollipop-shaped entries, planless send-offs, daring attempts to thread the needle in traffic — were particularly damaging. Golden State landed 49 steals in five games and scored nearly 1.5 points per game attacking those steals, regularly turning Boston’s errors into layups or draw fouls:

Boston finished Game 5 with 18 turnovers – five by Brown, four each by Tatum and Marcus Smart. They led the Warriors to 22 points and a victory over Golden State, continuing one of the clearest patterns and most egregious statistical indicators of this postseason: The Celtics are now 1-7 when turning the ball over 16 or more times in these playoffs, and 13-2 when they don’t.

“We’re hard to beat when we don’t return the ball,” Tatum told reporters after Game 5. “Obviously we’re easy to beat when we return the ball.”

Well, maybe not easybut easier and even more vulnerable when they compound those turnovers with the kind of shots that might as well count the same in the box score.

The quieter headaches come when a Celtic misses a layup on a scramble drive to the paint or a jumper to catch and shoot from the corner, and Golden State can trap the defensive rebound. The Dubs have been looking for opportunities to fend off those misses, especially when a few Celtics are under the free throw line and Boston’s ground balance is off. They’ve found the money there, especially lately: Golden State averaged 1.12 points per possession that started with a defensive rebound in games 4 and 5, according to Inpredictable, a dramatic increase from the first three contests. and a big help in tipping the offensive tide in their favor.

This type of play – physical defense at the point of attack, point and aggressive assist to the basket, hard closings, multiple efforts for 50/50 balls, commitment to picking up the pace – is about as good a definition of “strength”. a favorite phrase of Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and defensive totem Draymond Green, as you’re going to get it. Golden State knocked that out of the gate in Game 5 and Boston stuttered over that, going 2 for 8 downfield with two turnovers in the first five minutes, putting them behind the ball 8 throughout a first half. -time that saw them score a horrendous 71.7 points per 100 in half court and let Golden State score a mind-blowing two points per game (essentially a guaranteed bucket) in transition.

The twists and turns become all the more infuriating when you see Boston play the way they did in the third quarter – aggressive yet composed, precise and well-spaced, breaking down individual defenders to crumble inside coverage, then trusting the pass and create for others. The C’s notched seven assists on 11 field goals in that 35-point third quarter, completely, albeit briefly, turning the game upside down with their execution:

“When we’re at our best, it’s a simple movement of the ball – I think the third quarter showed that,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said. “The drive-and-kick was beautiful, working, getting wide-opening shots from the guys… It’s been a problem for us, obviously, at times in this series, quarters in particular where we’ve kind of stalled. When you do it right, it works, it looks good, you get the shots you want. [When] we slow down, play in the crowd, these turnovers appear in the wrong attack.

Boston’s inability to break those cycles — to fix everything, run a set, create a good look, and come up with a muffler that stops a run before it can start — has proven costly over the past two last matches.

“The guys who have the ball have to do the readings. It’s hard work, but they have to identify things,” Horford said. “The outlets are going to be what they are. The defense is going to be what it is. It’s just about making the game. It’s as simple as that.

Golden State, by far the most experienced team on this stage, was more successful in keeping it simple. Even without his line shooting, Curry (eight assists and just one turnover in 37 minutes) controlled the game like the kind of steady hand who knew exactly how to draw two balls and make the next play. The ball flowed more freely; looks have become easier.

For as much growth as Smart has shown as a primary point guard, and as much as Tatum and Brown have developed as wing enablers, the Celtics haven’t really had that level of possession-by-possession control in this series. Without it, empty runs accumulate and metastasize; without it, as Brown said after the game, “We were looking around waiting for someone to bail us out.”

It’s supposed to be Tatum, who is less than a month away from being named both All-NBA First Team Forward and Eastern Conference Finals MVP, but who has — despite the fact that he led the Celtics in points, rebounds and assists per game in this series – not quite able to muster enough. The culprits, in large part: a propensity for turnovers — 18 in these Finals and 95 in the playoffs, the most of any player in any playoff series since 1978 — and a persistent inability to convert inside the league. ‘bow.

Tatum shoots a searing 19-for-40 (47.5%) from 3-point field, but just a dismal 19-for-62 (30.6%) from 2-point range. Udoka has at times lamented his star’s penchant for driving to seek contact rather than score, which can result in lopsided, low-percentage runners leaving him in a heap on the baseline rather than finishing over the edge and return to the trot. defense. He also struggled mightily against the length, speed and determination of Wiggins, who held him to shoot 9 for 29 from inside the arc, according to game data from NBA Advanced Stats.

When Tatum managed to get rid of the Canadian, he had more success shooting over the smaller Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II, and working to attack Curry in pick-and-roll and isolation action. . For the most part, though, he struggled to find daylight against a Golden State defense committed to both walling off the front of the rim and sending in extra help every time he turned the corner:

After shooting just 3-for-8 in the paint in Game 5, including misses on all three of his inside attempts in the fourth quarter, Tatum said he was happy with the look he was getting; he must “just do more”. That, he added, might involve putting his legs a little more into his shots because “I mean, you’re going to be a little more tired in the fourth quarter than you were in the first quarter.”

That might be more true for Tatum at this point in the season than any other player on the pitch. He’s played 192 more minutes in this playoff than any Warrior, after finishing fourth in the NBA in regular time on the court; he’s played more playoff minutes than any player since LeBron James with the Big 3 Heat, and is approaching a staggering 3,700 total minutes since opening night. Brown, Boston’s second-leading scorer, didn’t carry such a heavy burden, but he still played more minutes, playoff and total, than anyone on Golden State’s roster.

Tatum and Brown played the entire second half until Kerr and Udoka emptied their benches with 1:19 to go, each logging over 44 minutes – the 10th time Tatum has played over 40 minutes in the last month , and Brown’s ninth. This type of workload can manifest itself both in a lack of lift on jumpers in the late game and, perhaps more critically, in suboptimal picks at inopportune times.

There’s how fatigue can hamper concentration and how the vicissitudes of 3-point variance can take you from 12 straight misses to eight straight hits to six straight misses in the blink of an eye. There is the reverse of engaging in the hunt Curry and Swimming pool– drag assets down late in the stopwatch swamp– and the challenge of generating a good appearance against a Draymond-led defense that moves at the speed of light to shrink the ground with every trip. Trying to beat the Warriors in the Finals isn’t about any of those things; it is all of this, all together, all at once. It is a monumental burden; it’s a lot to bear.

But so was Giannis and a must-go game 6 on the road, so did Jimmy and a game 7 on the road, and the Celtics are still standing. When you get this far, the weight is a giveaway. Those who can bear it receive rings. Those who can only have regrets.