The Celtics took Game 3 of the NBA Finals by force

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

The Warriors set a physical tone in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, but the Boston Celtics raised the bar in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in the series.

By coming out and setting a physical tone in Game 2 of the Finals, Draymond Green may have inadvertently handed the Celtics their blueprint for Game 3. Green’s activity and intensity (and some jawing with the Celtics) galvanized Golden State in its Game 2 win, as the Warriors crowded Boston’s airspace, attacked downhill and jumped passing lanes with abandon. Wednesday night, the Celtics not only matched that intensity and physicality, but raised the bar. The Warriors felt Boston in a way they hadn’t in the first two games of the series, and eventually buckled under the force with which the Celtics played on both ends of the court.

Golden State, by now, is used to being out-jumped, out-lengthed, out-sprinted. What it can’t afford is to be outworked and out-executed, which, save for another explosive third quarter, the Warriors were in Game 3. Hot shooting put Golden State in an early hole, but Boston’s superior discipline and execution throughout the game kept them there. The Warriors stuck with many of the same tactics they used in Game 2 and even got better performances from Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson.

The Celtics were simply the more aggressive team on Wednesday, which widened already noticeable size and athleticism advantages, and Golden State didn’t look prepared to match their physicality on drives, on the glass or on defense.

The Celtics physically overwhelmed the Warriors in Game 3

Boston’s sense of urgency was palpable from the start of the game when Jaylen Brown once again sparked a big run with outstanding shot- and decision-making. Brown’s quickness off the bounce has long allowed him to collapse defenses and draw multiple defenders, but he often struggles to make the right decisions when that happens. On Wednesday, he read Golden State’s complex defense brilliantly, striking an even better balance between being aggressive and playing under control than he did in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Brown stepped into his shot with confidence, got downhill with decisive moves and found open teammates with preemptive skip and swing passes:

One of the Warriors’ key adjustments in Game 2 was making Draymond Green Brown’s primary defender, allowing the former Defensive Player of the Year to pester one of Boston’s weaker ball-handlers while mitigating Brown’s speed advantage over Golden State’s other perimeter players. Brown responded to that adjustment not by forcing tougher shots, but by using Green’s pressure against him and attacking hard off the bounce. A pair of early 3-pointers brought Green farther out on the floor, so the quicker Brown started taking him off the dribble for layups. When Golden State switched the smaller Gary Payton II onto him, Brown burned him with a backdoor cut and used his size to create space:

Brown’s early decisiveness and ball movement seemed to spread to his teammates, and Boston attacked quickly and forcefully throughout the night. After committing six more turnovers than the Warriors in Game 2, the Celtics coughed the ball up four fewer times on Wednesday. After getting outrebounded in the first two games of the series, Boston crushed Golden State on the boards in Game 3, and the combination of fewer turnovers and more offensive rebounds allowed the Celtics to take 11 more shots than the Warriors did.

Robert Williams made himself a major presence in the paint, grabbing 10 rebounds and three steals while swatting four Warrior shot attempts. Williams’ availability after two days’ rest also gave Ime Udoka the ability to excise Daniel Theis from the rotation (though he probably could have done that in Games 1 and 2 anyway), and his vertical athleticism, even while playing through a knee injury, demanded that the Warriors pay him mind around the rim on both ends of the floor.

Jayson Tatum again finished with mediocre shooting numbers, but another excellent floor game unlocked Boston’s offense over the final three quarters. He consistently made the right plays when the Warrior defense tilted toward him, which resulted in nine assists and just two turnovers. Tatum drove hard to score rather than to draw fouls, and when he, Brown or Marcus Smart had size advantages, the Celtics identified and attacked those matchups quickly instead of pounding the ball and settling for contested jumpers. Boston seemed to make a point of going at Curry on offense, and Game 3 was the first time this series (or all postseason) that he was really taken advantage of defensively:

Curry was still his usual brilliant self on offense and continues to be the best player in the series by a wide margin. He’s scoring just under 33 points per 75 possessions on 64.1 percent true shooting (including 49 percent from 3!) in the Finals, and he’s having arguably the best passing postseason of his career. In the last three games, the Warriors have scored almost 117 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor, and the Celtics still don’t have a real answer for him in the pick-and-roll.

Udoka is clearly hesitant to trap and let the Warriors play four-on-three, but switching anyone but Smart, Brown or Derrick White onto him has proven untenable against Curry’s world-class isolation game. Boston went back to keeping its bigs in a drop coverage Wednesday night, but that only allowed Curry to walk into open 3s.

Yet even that kind of offensive force may not be enough to overcome a defense as versatile and connected as Boston’s, especially when Golden State shoots itself in the foot with turnovers, lapses in transition defense and poor defensive rebounding. (Or, more importantly, if Curry is at all limited by a foot injury suffered in the fourth quarter.) The Celtics have stymied the Warriors’ off-ball movement and the easy shots it creates, and the absence of a second consistent on-ball creator allows Boston to confine much of Golden State’s offense to Curry’s individual production.

The Warriors will play Game 4 with as much desperation as Boston showed in Game 3, and make the necessary adjustments to better contain Boston’s offense. But for the first time this postseason, Golden State looks truly vulnerable, and it’s now on them to play up to their opponent’s level.

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