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The Warriors Can’t Beat the Celtics on Vibes Alone

Golden State has dug itself out of a 2-1 Finals hole before, but it’ll need more than just experience to overcome an opponent as formidable as Boston

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With age and experience come perspective and, with any luck, a bit of wisdom. So it is that Klay Thompson responded to his Warriors’ disappointing start and sputtering finish to Game 3 of the 2022 NBA Finals—digging an 18-point hole in the first half, and scoring just 11 points against the Celtics in the decisive fourth quarter—with a level of equanimity befitting such a noted sage of the high seas.

“We’re not going to overreact,” said Thompson, who busted out of an early-series slump with 25 points and five 3-pointers. “We’ve been in this situation before.

“Getting big 2015 vibes.”

Back then, the Warriors were the bright young talents, the upstarts who’d taken the NBA by storm thanks to a first-year head coach, an elite defense, and an explosive offense. They were in their first Finals against the Cavaliers—who, despite losing Kevin Love before the series and Kyrie Irving in Game 1, had strong-armed their way to a 2-1 lead over Golden State behind a bludgeoning bully-ball attack led by LeBron James.

Thompson ticked off some stylistic similarities between that Cavs team and this Celtics side: “You know, a lot of one-on-one [offensive play], attacking downhill, and spray [passes around] the court with really good shooters. That’s very similar. And they have some very good players on their team obviously. I don’t think they have LeBron James, but they do have some All-NBA guys in [Jayson] Tatum. I think [Jaylen] Brown is knocking on the door.” Mostly, though, the five-time All-Star was struck by the memory of “just being down 2-1 in a championship series. Like, we’ve been here before. We can rely on our experience.”

The Warriors lost Game 3 in Cleveland in 2015, but they found something in the defeat, dusting off lightly used former All-Star David Lee to leverage the attention Stephen Curry was drawing to create four-on-three scoring opportunities. With its spacing and pick-and-roll game unlocked, Golden State would take the next three games, and its first championship in 40 years.

It was actually Golden State’s second comeback from a 2-1 deficit in that postseason. The Warriors also did it against the Grizzlies in Round 2, taking advantage of Tony Allen’s balky hamstring and his lack of a 3-point shot by slotting Andrew Bogut on him and letting him play free safety. That, combined with Mike Conley breaking his face, mucked up the Memphis offense enough for Golden State to win three straight and comfortably close out.

Winning three in a row against this Boston team seems unlikely, considering the C’s haven’t even dropped two straight since the end of March. You can’t win all three at once, either; the journey must begin with a single step. Quoth Klay: “Although we let one slip away, we have a beautiful opportunity Friday to even out the series and do what we’re supposed to do, and that was get one on the road.”

Taking that step in what Curry called a “must-win” Game 4 will require a dramatically improved effort on the defensive end, where Golden State dominated in Game 2 but got destroyed on Wednesday.

The Celtics scored 128.9 points per 100 possessions outside of garbage time against the Warriors in Game 3, including a scorching 114.1 points per 100 plays in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass—both head and shoulders above the marks that led the NBA during the regular season. After the Warriors largely bottled up the drive-and-kick attack in Game 2, packing the paint and creating congestion that produced a ton of Celtic cough-ups, Boston was much more effective at opening up breathing room in Game 3.

Brown told reporters Tuesday that most of the Celtics’ offensive failures start when “we get on top of each other” and fail to emphasize spacing and purposeful actions. That emphasis manifested Wednesday in a bunch of possessions in which a Boston ball handler worked his way into a preferable matchup while his teammates moved about as far away from him as humanly possible. With all of the traffic out of the middle of the floor, the ball handler then backed all the way up to half court to give himself a runway, and attacked the gaps in a defense now stretched across the entire width of the court.

When the Warriors defense stayed home on Boston’s spaced-out shooters, the driver got a free run all the way to the rim. When Golden State showed more aggressive help in the driving lanes, the C’s were ready to sling the pass ahead of the rotation and either fire a catch-and-shoot triple or drive past a closeout for another foray into the paint, keeping the machine humming and the Warriors on their heels time and time again:

“First half, we didn’t guard the ball well at all,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the 116-100 loss. “That was really the main issue, was the point-of-attack defense. They got past us. It wasn’t based on any sets they were running; it was more just they were coming downhill at us, and they got past us, and that hurt us.”

The drives hurt. The offensive rebounds, though—Boston collecting 15 of its misses, leading to 22 second-chance points—“were just a killer,” Kerr said.

“That was really the difference in the game,” Kerr said. “We made several stops, especially in the second half where we had a chance to cut into the lead or make a little push, and they got offensive boards. Those were tough.”

The toughest one of all came with a little over four minutes remaining in the fourth, when a diving Al Horford landed hard on Curry’s left foot:

Draymond Green, who picked up his sixth foul on the play, said after the game he could hear Curry “screaming at the bottom of the pile.” After getting disentangled, Curry stayed in the game until Kerr, trailing by 14 with 2:19 to go, waved the white flag and pulled his remaining starters. Asked after the game whether Curry staying in the game indicated that there was no concern for the health of his superstar’s left foot, though, Kerr quickly replied, “I didn’t say that.”

Curry compared the injury to the one he suffered when Marcus Smart collided with his leg while diving for a loose ball against him back in March. That incident put the two-time MVP on the shelf for the final 12 games of the regular season, and relegated him to off-the-bench duty for the first four games of the opening round of the playoffs. (Smart and Horford, for their part, denied any malice in the maneuvering in postgame interviews with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.)

The good news: Curry said, “For what I feel like, it’s not as bad” as the previous injury, and added, “I don’t feel like I’ll miss a game.” The bad news: He’s got only 48 hours to get right for Game 4, and even with Steph being far and away the best player in this series so far, averaging 31.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.7 steals in 35.9 minutes per game on 49/49/83 shooting splits, the Warriors are down 2-1. If Curry’s in any way encumbered—his gravitational pull reduced, his ability to destroy the drop coverage impeded, his north-south driving and playmaking disrupted—then Golden State’s odds of puncturing this decimating Celtics defense enough to take three of the next four games drop precipitously. Maybe to nil.

“We need him if we want to win this thing,” Thompson told reporters. “I know Steph is going to do everything he can in his power to play. I am really hoping he’s OK, because he’s our identity. And without him, it will be very difficult.”

Especially if Green—who said he played “like shit” and whose 35-minute foul-out stands as one of the least effective big-minutes performances in Finals history—can’t find a way to be as spirited on the court as he is off it with his postgame podcast defense. And if Jordan Poole (10 points, three rebounds, three assists, and plenty of indecision in 24 minutes) can’t score and create enough to make up for Boston targeting him whenever he’s on the floor. And if Kerr’s ongoing search for rotational answers to Boston’s size and speed continues to leave some base uncovered—like, for example, Kevon Looney, Golden State’s most reliable rebounder, not seeing the floor at all in the fourth quarter as Kerr prioritized shooting.

“That’s the game for us,” Kerr said. “We have to factor in what’s happening on the floor, what we need—do we need floor spacing? Do we need better rebounding?—and we were kind of plugging holes tonight. … We weren’t able to find that two-way combination, other than that stretch in the third when Steph really got hot.”

A Golden State team without a Durant-sized margin for error has to tighten up enough to avoid stretches like the one at the start of the fourth quarter, when it had four turnovers in six possessions and turned a two-possession game into yet another double-digit deficit. The Warriors win on skill and precision, both so evident in the third-quarter barrage that saw Steph and Klay combine for 16 points; when their focus wavers, though, it opens the door for Boston to overwhelm them with its edges in length, athleticism, and physicality.

“We want to try to impose our will and size in this series,” Boston head coach Ime Udoka said after the win. So far, so good: Through three games, the Celtics have had more juice, more verve, and more answers, which is why, through three games, they have more wins. This is not the first time the Warriors have looked physically overmatched in the early stages of a series—things looked dismal in 2015 against Memphis, and in 2015 against Cleveland, and in 2016 against Oklahoma City, only for us to find out that it was darkest before the dawn.

“Obviously, we still feel like we can win the series—got to come out with the right intensity and focus in Game 4,” Curry said. “But to Klay’s point, it does help knowing that we’ve been through a little of everything the last eight years and can draw on that experience of showing up when you need to, to stay in the series.”

Steph’s been here the whole series. Klay finally showed up in Game 3. Everybody else needs to show up now, too, because the 2015 versions of Andre Iguodala, Bogut, Shaun Livingston, and even Draymond aren’t, and it’s worth remembering that the last time the Warriors went down 2-1 in a series, they lost. The 2015 vibes Klay’s feeling might be big. But so are the Celtics, and so is the challenge that they pose.