After watching a number of Celtics have time to check their feet and test the wind in Chase Center before launching a 3-pointer during Boston’s small-ball barrage in Game 1, Draymond Green came to an astute conclusion: “I think there were times in the game when they didn’t feel us.”
“When you’re playing against a great team at this level at this point in the season, they have to feel you every possession,” he told reporters at practice on Saturday. “It’s easy to go back and look at the shots in the fourth quarter and be like, ‘Man, they started hitting.’ But the reality is some guys got comfortable early in that game, and once you get a guy comfortable, it’s hard to break that rhythm.”
Green’s job for Sunday’s Game 2, then, was … well, if not simple, then at least clear. Don’t let the Celtics get comfortable. Don’t allow them to establish rhythm. And, above all else, make them feel you.
He wasted no time setting about his appointed rounds, pressing Al Horford the second he caught the ball to force a tie-up and a jump ball on Game 2’s opening possession …
… and he kept that same relentless energy throughout, spearheading a tenacious Warriors defense that clipped the soaring C’s wings in a 107-88 return-of-serve that knotted the best-of-seven Finals at one game apiece.
With all the richly deserved praise lavished on the Celtics’ league-leading defense heading into the Finals, it might’ve been easy to miss the fact that the Warriors finished second in defensive efficiency during the regular season. They showed why on Sunday, holding the visitors to 37.5 percent shooting and disrupting their flow with constant on- and off-ball pressure that produced 30 deflections and 15 steals, allowing Golden State to get into transition rather than have to grind it out on offense against Boston’s elite half-court defense.
“I think we weren’t strong with the ball a lot, searching for fouls instead of going up and making plays, especially with their lack of rim protection,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka told reporters after the game. “For us, that was a little disappointing, to give up 33 points off of 19 turnovers. That’s kind of been a constant theme in the playoffs. When that happens, we’re in trouble.”
As Udoka’s counterpart Steve Kerr said, though, turnovers “are often a byproduct of physicality and intensity,” and Green brought a flaming shopping cart full of both to Game 2. “That’s my job,” he told reporters. “Just like I said: Steph Curry sets the tone on the offensive side of the ball, [and] it’s my job to set the tone from the defensive side of the ball.”
Udoka attributed the Warriors’ defensive response to a team-wide effort, saying that it wasn’t just Green because “that’s one player … you can only guard one person at a time.” What makes Draymond so special, though, is that that’s not always necessarily true.
With his instincts, quickness, timing, and anticipation, it can feel like Green is everywhere. He can guard his man and put out fires elsewhere—a well-timed double to turn a jumper into a steal, an aggressive hedge to spook a ball handler into an errant pass, a quick step up in transition to corral a drive, directing traffic on the back line to funnel the ball to a weak shooter, and closing out like a screaming eagle to turn a corner 3 into a turnover.
The seven-time All-Defensive selection made his presence felt throughout Game 2, informing a Celtics team that shot scores of uncontested 3s in Game 1 that good looks would be a little tougher to come by this time around. “I wanted to do that from the very beginning of the game,” he said. After forcing the game-opening tie-up with Horford, though, Green shifted away from Game 1’s much celebrated hero, and over to the Celtic whom Horford credited with kick-starting Boston’s monster closing kick: Jaylen Brown.
In Game 1, Kerr primarily leaned on Klay Thompson to guard Brown. It’s a sound matchup on paper—a pair of 6-foot-6, 220-pound guards who play even bigger than that—but one that the Celtics felt they could exploit, given the edges in quickness and athleticism that the 25-year-old Brown holds over a defender who’s nearly seven years older and coming off of multiple serious leg injuries. Sure enough, Boston fared well in those matchups in the opener, scoring 53 points on 41 possessions on which Thompson had the half-court matchup on Brown, according to Second Spectrum tracking, and more than 1.3 points per touch when Brown directly attacked Thompson—including several plays that helped the Celtics open up the floodgates in the decisive fourth quarter.
After a feint toward the status quo on the opening possession of Game 2, Kerr revealed his adjustment—Green racing across the court in transition to meet Brown on the left wing, while Thompson waited at the free throw line for Horford.
On its own, the challenge of shutting down Brown probably didn’t get Green so geeked up to compete on Sunday—“You could have put Draymond on Coach Udoka, and it would have been a different ballgame from [Game 1] just based on the way he approached the game,” Curry quipped—and it started inauspiciously, with Brown rising up to splash a 3 over Draymond’s contest. Green proved equal to the task, though, and his work was vital: Boston scored just 17 points on 23 possessions with Green matched up against Brown in the half court, and only one point per touch when Brown went right at the former Defensive Player of the Year.
At every opportunity, Green pushed himself into Brown’s airspace, not giving the young star any room to put the ball on the floor, turn the corner, or maneuver his way into a clean release—an imposed claustrophobia that helped limit Boston’s no. 2 scorer to just 17 points overall and 1-for-11 shooting after the first quarter.
Late in the second, after Draymond fouled Jaylen on a 3-point attempt, that enforced closeness resulted in a brief kerfuffle and some hard feelings:
Draymond Green and Jaylen Brown had to be separated after this interaction. pic.twitter.com/pyEdSepMjV— ESPN (@espn) June 6, 2022
“On that situation, Draymond fouled me on a 3 and put his legs on my head or whatever. I tried to get up,” Brown told reporters after the game. “… I feel like that was an illegal play. I feel like they could have called it, but they let it go in terms of a technical either way. But I don’t know what I was supposed to do there. Somebody got their legs on the top of your head, and then he tried to pull my pants down. I don’t know what that was about. That’s what Draymond Green does. He’ll do whatever it takes to win. He’ll pull you, he’ll grab you, he’ll try to muck the game up, because that’s what he does for their team.”
Another thing Green did for his team: prevent Brown from breaking down Golden State off the dribble. After racking up a game-high 18 drives to the basket in Game 1, according to Second Spectrum, Brown managed only six in Game 2. And with its most dangerous slasher under wraps, and with Golden State’s perimeter defenders (Andrew Wiggins, Curry, Gary Payton II) doing their damnedest to hold up against Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White at the point of attack, Boston had a significantly tougher time collapsing the Warriors defense and creating the kick-out catch-and-shoot looks on which Horford, White, and Smart feasted in Game 1:
One good way to guarantee those dudes don’t shoot a combined 15-for-23 from 3-point land again? By making sure, through ratcheted-up ball pressure, more aggressive close-outs, and on-time rotations, that they only attempt seven long balls between them—four for White (who needed 13 shots to score 12 points), three for Smart (who scored two points and had five turnovers), and none at all for Horford.
“I think that for whatever reason, we got caught playing—going downhill, attacking the basket a little more,” said Horford, who scored just two points in 28 minutes. “They did a good job of staying with me, for example. Obviously I didn’t get an attempt, not even a look. So they did a good job making sure they took me away.”
As a team, the Celtics logged the same number of drives in Game 2 as they did in Game 1 (47). But White, Smart, and Payton Pritchard were at the controls for most of them, and the lion’s share came against a keyed-in and more physical defense. With Boston “playing in the crowd,” as Udoka likes to say, those forays into the paint were far less productive: just 0.88 points per chance on plays that featured a drive on Sunday, compared to a whopping 1.29 in Game 1.
“I think that starts with Wiggs and Draymond,” Warriors center Kevon Looney said after the game. “They did a great job with Brown and Tatum keeping them out of the paint, or no straight-line drives, I should say. And we did a good job flying around rotating.”
Without the drive-and-kick game, Boston’s offense was largely reduced to Tatum creating for himself and firing over the top of smaller Warriors defenders. He did that pretty damn well—28 points on 6-for-9 from long distance in 34 minutes—but a one-man pull-up offense wasn’t close to enough. When Udoka yanked his starters with Golden State up by 29 and 10:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Celtics had scored just 64 points in 77 offensive possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass—an 81.8 offensive rating that stands as Boston’s worst of the entire season.
The Celtics won Game 1 on the strength of their 3-point marksmanship, seizing home-court advantage and shifting the balance of power in this series in their favor. They’re now shooting just 42.5 percent inside the arc through two games, though; if they can’t find a way to generate more offense moving toward the basket against a sharper, more aggressive, and more physical Golden State defense, the series could shift back in the Warriors’ favor just as quickly.
“For me, you know, you have to send a message,” Green said after the win. “Guys follow me on [the defensive] side of the ball. If I’m not sending a message, who is sending that message?”
The message, it seems: We’re still the Warriors, and it’s going to take more than one haymaker to knock us out. When the series shifts to TD Garden on Wednesday, we’ll find out whether the Celtics can find the range to throw another—to break the Warriors’ newfound rhythm, to get them uncomfortable, and, above all else, to make Golden State feel them once again.