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Monday, November 28, 2022

NBA Finals 2022: Defending Steph Curry is an impossible task for Celtics and this is why it might not matter

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Steph Curry is torching the Celtics. To say he’s been the Finals MVP through four games is akin to saying the sky is blue, grass is green or water is wet. An all-time performance by an all-time player, Curry is uncorking a Hardwood Classics type of series, one that will be talked about for generations.

The eye-popping box score numbers — 34.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game — don’t fully do him justice and there is simply no way that this series would be tied up 2-2 without his scintillating play. Curry has lit up the vaunted Celtics defense, shooting 50 percent from the field and 49 percent from 3.

The greatest shooter of all-time is hotter than he’s ever been. Short of praying for an off night, how on earth are the Celtics supposed to stop him?

Maybe they don’t have to. 

Curry has been dominant, but his teammates have shot a pedestrian 43 percent from the field and 34 percent from 3. The team offense has been mediocre despite Curry’s incredible production. 

MORE: Was Game 4 the best game of Steph Curry’s Finals career?

Warriors offense in NBA Finals

Figuring out a way to keep the Warriors’ overall production out of scalding hot territory is a big win for the Celtics. The Warriors’ playoff offense was unstoppable prior to entering the Finals. Their 116.1 offensive rating was the best of the 16 playoff teams. They’re down to a 110.8 offenisve rating in the Finals, which would rank 20th in the regular season and ninth in the playoffs, almost equivalent to the meh output of the Heat through their 18 playoff games. 

For all the focus on how to stop Curry, the Celtics can still win these games if he goes off. Curry has exploded due to the way that they have chosen to defend him, but his teammates have also struggled for that same reason. 

Much has been made of the drop defense that the Celtics have mostly employed with their big men against Curry. They have tried to play their big men higher up and closer to the level of the screen in a more shallow drop, but that style of defense is still going to be more susceptible to pull-up 3’s than other, more aggressive ball screen coverages. Curry, one of the most prolific pull-up 3 shooters ever, has exposed all of those weaknesses.

MORE: How Celtics, Ime Udoka slowed down Steph earlier this series

The Warriors have also done a great job of exploiting the Celtics’ drop defense even further. They’re setting ball screens all over the court, even at the halfcourt line or logo, to force Boston’s big men to guard way higher up than they’re comfortable with. Boston’s bigs were guarding 20 or so feet from the rim during the regular season. They now have to chase Curry, one of the shiftiest players in the league, at 40 feet instead of 20.

Those super-high ball screens have given Curry a huge runway to get his pull-up 3 off. Even when the Celtics big men have gotten up to the level of the screen and done exactly what they were supposed to, Curry has found tiny windows to drill those shots. 

There is no way to shut down Curry if the Celtics continue to use a drop defense. They can pray for an off shooting night, and that’s about it. 

That raises the natural question of why the Celtics are sticking to their drop defense in the first place. Other teams have oftentimes chosen to send two defenders at Curry to force the ball out of his hands. But there is no good way to guard Curry and the Warriors, which is why they’ve been so great.

For as ineffective as Draymond Green has been offensively in this series, he’s one of the best 4-on-3 short rollers in league history and has ripped teams to shreds when they have doubled Curry. The Celtics haven’t tried it much, but they’ve experienced the exact same phenomenon.

The Celtics tried ignoring Green to send two defenders at Curry twice in a must-stop situation down 3 with a little over a minute left in the game. Out of that coverage, the Warriors ended up with a good look at a Klay Thompson 3 and a layup for Kevon Looney. Ignore the fact that Thompson missed his shot — none of those are good outcomes for the defense. That coverage also left the Celtics scrambling to cover and gave the Warriors great opportunities to crash the offensive glass. 

Sending two defenders at Curry will slow him down. But it will also empower the Warriors’ limited role players like Looney and Green.

The Celtics have chosen to live with Curry’s production, and it has worked. He has lit them up, but the Warriors haven’t had a blowout scoring game yet in this series. It is hard to mentally stomach Curry scoring 43 points in Game 4, but the Warriors only hit 107 as a team. They averaged over 115 against the Mavericks last series. 

MORE: How the Celtics are exposing and exploiting Draymond Green

Jayson Tatum’s struggles shine light on Warriors unsung hero

The real key to the Warriors competing in this series has been their ability to keep the Celtics’ offense in check. The series has hinged on how well the Celtics have taken care of the ball. In each of their victories, they turned it over only 12 times. In their two losses, they had 18 and 15 turnovers. 

The Warriors have also done some pretty clever things on the margins. One of these, which Steve Jones of the Dunker Spot has called “taking the bait,” is putting Nemanja Bjelica on the floor and hoping that the Celtics’ offense bogs down trying to attack him one-on-one. 

Bjelica wasn’t supposed to be able to play in this series because of his defense. He has been shockingly solid in his time on the floor. I had previously pointed out that Tatum couldn’t score on him once in Game 2. In Game 4, he completely shut down Tatum and Jaylen Brown again. 

Bjelica looks like a terrible defender. But the adjusted on/off data paints a different picture. Three-year RAPM is one of the more reliable defensive indicators that we have (as an aside, please stop depending only on the NBA’s extremely flawed matchup data). It says that Bjelica’s impact is a tiny shade better than average. Estimated plus-minus says the same thing.

Bjelica is about as unassuming as it gets. During the NBA’s media sessions, teammates were swarmed by dozens of reporters while he stretched his legs out, sitting alone in the stands. He hasn’t looked like he’s done much in those matchups. But he’s been in the right spot and done his job. Whether that continues is certainly fair to wonder, as nobody is stopping Tatum one-on-one long run. For now, he’s baited the Celtics into turning into the worst versions of themselves, a ball-stopping over-driving nightmare. For now, I’m a Bjelliever. 

Draymond Green’s defense causing Celtics fits despite Game 4 benching

Draymond Green has garnered lots of attention for his play during the NBA Finals and for all of the wrong reasons.

While the criticism is fair — particularly on the offensive end where he’s shooting 23.1 percent and is the series’ 15th-leading scorer — he’s still finding ways to cause Boston headaches.

Green continues to be the other major wrench in the Celtics’ offensive attack. For as bad as he’s been on offense, he completely bailed out teammates a number of times in Game 4 when they made mistakes in their coverages. He’s putting out the fires that you don’t see.

That may not be enough to keep him in the games in crunch time. Steve Kerr subbed him out for offensive possessions to close Game 4, which was probably the right move. Overall, Warriors have played better as a team with Looney on the floor.

But Green is still contributing when he’s on the floor, even if he’s barely doing anything on offense. Who knows whether or not Green will summon the confidence on the offensive end to at least keep the Celtics somewhat honest. But if can muster anything, it justifies leaving him out there to wreck havoc on defense and could spare Kerr from needing to make a potentially difficult decision with one of Golden State’s foundational lynchpins. 

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