Draymond Green seemed skeptical. The Celtics had upended Game 1 of the NBA Finals with an especially hot shooting performance, outscoring the Warriors by 24 points in the fourth quarter alone to seize a 120-108 win. So Green crunched the numbers from the press conference podium, and shrugged a few times in increasingly demonstrative fashion as he ran his audit on the box score.
“They hit 21 3s,” Green said Thursday night. “And Marcus Smart and Al Horford and Derrick White combined for 15 of them.”
That’s a development worthy of a shrug. In Boston’s comeback win, Smart shot 4-for-7 from beyond the arc—after making just 33 percent of his long-range attempts in the regular season. White hit more 3-pointers (five) than he had in any game since joining the Celtics back in February, and Horford hit more (six) than he had in any game of his entire 15-year career. That’s an oddity on top of an aberration on top of an anomaly.
Yet it was all made possible by a Golden State defense tempting fate. Those shooters were deliberately left open at times—as when Green watched from the free throw line while Horford teed up a 3 at the top of the key—and simply found openings in the defense at others, taking advantage when the Warriors justifiably tilted toward Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
“You never go in conceding shots,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “You kind of have a scouting report on each player. You know who you’re going to close out hot to, who you’re going to close out short to, all that stuff. It felt like to me that we didn’t close out very well in the first half, and that allowed them to get going a little bit.”
What cost Golden State in Game 1 wasn’t those few unbothered jumpers in the first half, but what they eventually became. “I mean, ask any basketball player,” Klay Thompson said. “When you get great looks from 3, everything else feels easy.” Early makes encouraged timely passing. Great passing kept the Celtics cutting and relocating, even against junkier zone coverage. All that movement gave Tatum, in particular, more options as the Warriors loaded up against him, and the means to control the game even on a night when he shot 3-for-17 from the field.
“All year leading up to this we’ve been kind of grooming and preparing Jayson for these moments, where teams are going to key in on you so much that they try to take you out of the game,” Smart said. “You have to be able to make plays and affect the game in different ways.”
The Warriors didn’t double-team Tatum outright, but put an extra defender in his path and challenged him to make sense of an unbalanced floor. He responded by racking up 13 assists. Golden State’s strategy banked on the idea that even if Tatum did make the right reads all game long, funneling so many shots to borderline shooters would eventually work in their favor. That the probabilities would eventually bear out. They didn’t, but it’s not as if the Warriors’ game plan came from some flawed premise. Sometimes in basketball, you lose with a shrug.
What’s clear, however, is that it’s not enough to just make Tatum a passer. Golden State has to force the ball out of the star forward’s hands and be in a position to follow it—to recover after edging into Tatum’s line of sight, to take away the trailer after jamming the Celtics up in transition, and to sprint out to one shooter after another as Boston swings the ball between them. A team willfully putting itself into so much rotation just has to be sharper than this:
“You obviously have to pick and choose where you send attention,” Stephen Curry said. “Jaylen and Jayson have the ball in their hands a lot, and they try to create confusion with pick-and-rolls, putting a lot of different people in them.”
The Warriors’ best response under the circumstances is modulation—not changing their schemes, per se, but how they’re executed. Defenders can offer preventative help against the drive without completely selling out. There are ways to eat up space in the middle of a zone without collapsing quite so hard. Everything with defense is a matter of degrees; one step can be the difference between a smooth drive-and-kick sequence and a curdled mess. Golden State is simply looking for the right balance against an opponent that can also shapeshift into smaller lineups with even broader spacing, as Boston did to tremendous effect in the fourth quarter.
Those long rotations were a silent killer for a team that flocked so many defenders to the ball. Here’s a tidy point of comparison, courtesy of the fact that Robert Williams III played almost exactly half the game. In the 24 minutes the Celtics played big with Williams, they took 17 shots from beyond the arc and made eight (47.1 percent). That’s strong work. Yet in the 24 minutes they played without Williams, Boston took 24 3s and made 13 (54.2 percent). That’s game-breaking. “It was the way that we were moving the ball on offense, just being in those positions,” Horford said. “I felt like the guys kept finding me, time after time.” It’s a sensation the Warriors know all too well. Stretch the floor to its limit, and the passes practically make themselves.
Golden State was able to find a similar rhythm for long stretches of Game 1, but everything seemed to go off the rails in the fourth quarter. What’s less clear is the exact causality. “You know,” Green said, “sometimes you can allow missed shots to drag your defense down.” That certainly was the case, particularly as the Warriors gave up 17 points in the space of about five minutes. “And then,” Curry said, “it’s also tough because you’re taking the ball out of the basket, [with] the way that they were shooting the ball.” Which is partly why Golden State scored just two points of its own in that same five-minute stretch. Transition play was off the table. The offensive glass completely dried up. Every possession seemed to go uphill.
Golden State wore its frustrations plainly in those closing minutes, with shaking heads and baffled gestures at every 3 Boston made. Implausibility had taken its toll—and could again. There’s never enough time in a seven-game series for the averages to really settle, particularly on a Finals stage where both teams are so evenly matched. “That’s what this team has to understand,” Green said. “When you get to this point in the season, this level, there is no margin for error.” Every championship is improbable. The task the Warriors face now is learning to live with that.