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The Celtics Just Beat the Warriors at Their Own Game

As it turns out, Golden State isn’t the only team that can go small. Boston opened the floodgates in Game 1 by downsizing in the fourth quarter, leading to a staggering result and plenty of questions for the opposition.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The names have changed over the years, from the Death Lineup to the Hamptons Five to the Poole Party, but the underlying principle has remained the same: When the Warriors need to win big, Steve Kerr goes small. Those alignments—Draymond Green sliding from power forward to center, another wing joining Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Insert Small Forward Here—laid the foundation for five straight Finals appearances and three NBA championships, forever stretching defenses with speed and movement until they snapped, washing away the opposition beneath torrential downpours of buckets.

Someone got buried by a small-ball blitz on Thursday, all right, but it wasn’t Golden State’s opposition. Down a dozen after the first three quarters of the 2022 NBA Finals, the Celtics ditched the two-big front line they’ve started all season, leaned on units featuring one big flanked by four perimeter players … and proceeded to absolutely annihilate the Warriors.

The downshift kick-started a hellacious onslaught for Boston—a 40-16 fourth quarter that ultimately delivered a 120-108 Game 1 win and seized home-court advantage for the visiting C’s. The opening clash, which featured a Finals record 40 made 3-pointers, also sent a crystal-clear message to the three-time champs: You’re not the only ones who can go small to win big.

While Celtics head coach Ime Udoka has preferred the defensive boost that comes with playing two bigs who can protect the paint, Boston fared well during the regular season in limited minutes with Al Horford or Robert Williams III as the lone big surrounded by wings. That continued as Boston ran the Eastern Conference gauntlet, with the C’s outscoring opponents by 26 points in 93 minutes with Horford as the only center and by 14 points in 13 minutes with Time Lord flying solo in groups that switch more, shoot better, share the ball more effectively, and push the tempo.

The small-ball success carried over in a major way in Game 1: Boston battered Golden State by 23 points in 10 minutes with Horford joined by four of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Derrick White, or Payton Pritchard, and by eight points in six minutes for the Williams-Tatum-Brown-White-Pritchard lineup. That’s massive—a plus-31 swing in a game the Celtics won by 12—and the bulk of the damage came as the floodgates opened in that decisive fourth quarter.


Before the teamwide deluge, though, Boston’s comeback from a classic Warriors third quarter (during which they outscored the Celtics 38-24) began with individual determination. “I think that for us the key was Jaylen Brown, start of the fourth quarter, with the way he came out and played, with his energy and scoring, but also then Rob Williams gets a lob dunk,” Horford told reporters after the win. “I just think that that was the start for us of something there.”

Brown, who’d been limited to 14 points on 6-for-17 shooting with three turnovers and no assists through three quarters, took it upon himself to dominate the early stages of the final period. He scored or assisted on Boston’s first 14 points of the quarter to cut Golden State’s lead to three with just over seven minutes to go, consistently collapsing the defense and making good decisions—a far cry from the ball security struggles and tunnel vision that plagued him in previous rounds against the Bucks and Heat.

The Celtics would get into even better position midway through the fourth, when Horford (who scored a team-high 26 points and hit six of eight 3-pointers) checked in for Williams to play alongside Brown, White, Tatum (who scored just 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting, but who played a brilliant floor game with 13 assists and two turnovers in 42 minutes), and Pritchard (who played the bulk of the period in place of Smart). Replacing the lob-catching rim-runner with someone who’d drilled 43 percent of his 3-point shots coming into Game 1 meant that Boston could play five-out offense, spacing the floor with five legitimate threats to shoot off the catch.

And against a five-out team, all it takes is one breakdown on the perimeter, and suddenly you’re rotating to try to protect the paint and clean up the mess. That’s when, if you’re not careful, you can give up the whole friggin’ store.

“We started getting some penetration, getting to the basket—they zoned up a little bit,” Udoka said. “Every time we got the ball in the middle, they collapsed the paint and kick-outs were wide open there. Guys stepped up and made them. We’ll take that all the time.”

While the downsized Celtics were unleashing their drive-and-kick game, they were also grinding go-go Golden State into dust, limiting the Warriors to just 13 points on 6-for-15 shooting with as many turnovers as assists (four) in the fourth before both coaches pulled their starters with 48 seconds left.

Kerr and Co. contributed to their own suffering early in the fourth, giving Curry—who had 30 points in 29 minutes through three quarters—his typical rest to start the quarter and entrusting responsibility for generating good shots to Draymond, Otto Porter Jr., Andre Iguodala, Thompson, and Jordan Poole. With two historic non-shooters plus the nice-but-not-all-that-threatening Porter to sag off of, that put a massive burden on Poole to make his I Can’t Believe It’s Not Steph! routine stand up against the best defense in the NBA. Boston nailed its on- and off-ball switches to keep Poole from getting downhill and Klay from breaking free, resulting in some ugly and empty possessions, which in turn allowed the Celtics to push the ball in the open floor and cut into the deficit.

“I would say they had us kind of on our heels,” Warriors center Kevon Looney said after the game.

Curry checking back in for Poole helped loosen things up a bit, as he created buckets on three out of four possessions to keep Golden State up four with 6:47 to go. But from the midpoint of the fourth on, the Celtics put the clamps on the postseason’s no. 1 offense, allowing just one basket in five minutes as they switched assignments, sliced hands through every passing lane, and clung tightly to their marks, leaving Golden State gasping for room to create shots:

“We wanted to go to a smaller unit, kind of get more aggressive on the ball,” Udoka told reporters. “We did some pre-switching to keep the bigs out of the actions and took some time off the clock. This is what we rely on all year—our one-on-one defense. Guys really clamped in a little bit better, more physicality, more awareness on their shooters taking up some space. Seemed like that seemed to wear them down a little bit.”

Earlier in the game, when Boston started with its traditional multi-big lineups and tried drop coverage to keep Golden State out of the paint, Steph wound up stepping into easy look after easy look. Udoka and the Celtics adjusted, and as Boston’s switching cranked up, the daylight began to fade for Golden State.

“We changed defense up a little bit, made them work, then got the stops and got out and ran,” added White, who continued his phenomenal run of form since returning from the birth of his first child with 21 points, three assists, and some fantastic defense in 32 minutes off the bench. “It was a lot of fun.”

Not so much for the Warriors, who head into what’s now pretty much a must-win Game 2 knowing that they squandered an opportunity to win a game they led for most of the way, and by as many as 15 points.

The common refrain coming out of Golden State’s postgame pressers: You’re probably going to lose when a team makes 21 3-pointers … but that probably isn’t going to happen that often, so this isn’t really worth freaking out about. Especially when the bulk of that damage came from the guys you’re more or less willing to let shoot; Smart, White, and Horford combined to go 15-for-23 from deep.

Thompson, though, offered a compelling counterargument to the idea that Boston’s hot shooting was unsustainable: “No, because they were great looks for them … I mean, ask any basketball player, when you get great looks from 3, everything else feels easy.”

I’ve got to say: When you take another peek at some of those looks Golden State gave up in the fourth …

Screenshots via ESPN

… it doesn’t seem that far-fetched that a Celtics team that entered the Finals averaging nearly as many 3-pointers per game as the Warriors in the playoffs despite playing brutal Milwaukee and Miami defenses, and that has now topped 20 triples four times in this postseason, could keep on drilling lightly contested or flat-out wide-open 3s. It’s on the Dubs, then, to find a way to stop conceding them.

Better and more attentive closeouts would certainly help. So, too, would fewer offensive trips that result in turnovers or bad misses and send Boston off to the races. (Poole, in particular, must produce more than nine points on seven shot attempts with twice as many turnovers as assists.) There’s no version of this series in which the Warriors give up 130 points per 100 possessions and win; Kerr and Co. need to go under the hood and tune up what used to be the NBA’s no. 2 defense by the time Game 2 tips off on Sunday.

“It’s not ideal, but I believe in who we are and how we deal with adversity, how we responded all year, how we’ve responded in the playoffs after a loss,” Curry said after Game 1. “So, [we can] learn a lot from that fourth quarter.”

Including, perhaps, that it’s a hell of a lot less fun when the other guys can do the “downsize and stretch the defense out until it snaps” thing, too.