The Celtics had been through so much in the NBA Finals, but there was one more thing they hadn’t seen: crunchtime. Specifically, a dynasty in crisis.
The Celtics were rolling on Friday when Jaylen Brown caught a reckless pass from Steph Curry with 7 minutes and 39 seconds left in the game and hit a circus shot to regain a two-possession lead. But it didn’t last long. He rarely does against Curry. This is rarely the case against a group that has spent its entire career in the final.
Boston would hit two shots the rest of the night as the Warriors went on a 21-6 run to send the Finals to San Francisco tied at two games apiece with a 107-97 victory.
They’ve seen so many times how Curry can look sleepy and then suddenly explode before he sees it coming. That’s why you always have to see it coming.
“You have to be aware, especially at the end. He’s the one guy you can’t let fight,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He did a lot of hard knocks on us tonight. When you get a guy like that, a little rhythm at the start, those shots, the basketball hoop starts to look a little bigger for him. We just have to make a conscious effort to find him and Klay and their shooters, especially in transition.
The Celtics tried everything from blitzes to switches, but Curry was insurmountable. He already has the skills, perseverance and dynamism. All of this can be encountered and challenged, but there is luck.
Boston had a chance to finally tie after Jayson Tatum smashed his way past Andrew Wiggins to find Al Horford in the corner for a 3-pointer with a minute and a half left. Then, with Derrick White locking Curry in again and Tatum playing to blitz Curry in the midrange, Boston’s back rotations were perfect and forced Klay Thompson to miss.
But then, with Horford in perfect boxing position, the rebound sailed over his head into the hands of Draymond Green. Tatum bombarded Curry again, but this time they gently surrounded him instead of rushing and assaulting him. It was too easy for Curry to lob him on White to Green, who put him down for Kevon Looney to finish just on Horford and restore the lead to two possessions for the final time.
There have been constant talks of Boston dropping covers on Curry pick-and-rolls and calling them to show tough or outright blitz. The Celtics mix variations of up-to-touch and deep-drop schemes with covered switches, always finding a way to keep one defender on Curry and one under the screen to zone below. Celtics coach Ime Udoka wants to eliminate the easy 2s and keep his defense out of rotation as much as possible, knowing the Warriors as a collective can bury them even if they stop Curry.
This latest Looney layup showed exactly why they are so blitz-averse.
“Sometimes we are obviously focused on him, keeping the others in check. But some of them were hotly contested crazy moves he made,” Udoka said of Curry. “You look at the overall numbers, the attempts, taking them out is the number we don’t like, the 14 attempts overall.
“He came out bombing early, had nine in the first half. Some of the 3s he hit were hotly contested, and there’s nothing you can do about it. When we changed it kind of had some crossover matches and guys on the rim. I followed him a bit later. They made a few games.
Although the Celtics’ offense once again stalled in stagnant lag hunting, this critical first time frame of the Finals shed light on the stylistic differences between the leaders of these teams. Brown likes to push the tempo and often staggers matches with ball pressure and leaks. Tatum will often slow things down to get the match angle and leverage he wants to find. But when the Celtics aren’t short on turnovers, they tend to get stuck trying to slow the pace and slow the shot clock.
Brown said they need to stop being rushed into the clutch, but it’s often their own fault for starting their games too late to give themselves options. As a result, the Warriors picked up defensive rebounds even later in games, leaning into top Splash Bros. trends.
So when Robert Williams appeared to injure his knee after playing up a Jordan Poole layup with just under five minutes left, the Warriors had the moment to turn the game around with their pace. Williams was dragging up and down the floor badly and appeared to be calling for a replacement, but he didn’t come. Udoka said after the game that he saw nothing with Williams and heard nothing, but the Warriors saw it.
On their next possession, Curry grabbed the rebound and immediately pushed. He came out to the wing, then dribbled across the floor to drag as many backpedaling defenders with him as Looney and Thompson cut him off. Curry dragged Brown and Tatum away from an open Thompson, then Williams tried as best he could to close to no avail.
After another miss from Brown, Curry embarked on an early transition pick-and-roll with Looney to get Williams out on the perimeter, running the action over and over again until he had Williams on a island and passed it so easily that the Limping Williams had just given up.
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Early attacks, second chances, beat lags. Curry knew the way and took control of the game in just a few possessions for the umpteenth time in these Finals.
On a night when one of the greatest players of all time had what Thompson called the best Finals game of his life, the Celtics saw that the constant push to go from good to great for the champions will compel them to keep evolving until the very end. .
“I’ve said it before, winning is hard,” Horford said. “Winning is tough, and there are times when we develop as a team, as a group again, even now. It’s another challenge, another opportunity for us to accept that and be better.
It’s all really on Curry’s shoulders. With a 33.6% usage rate for Curry, only LeBron James has been higher in an NBA Finals since Kobe Bryant beat the Celtics in 2010, according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. Thompson and Wiggins were so good all night and Green finally found a way to make winning plays when Warriors coach Steve Kerr decided to bring him back for crunchtime.
Curry was on another level, one that no one else has reached in these finals. The Celtics can’t match that now. They are not there yet. Tatum and Brown are great at times, but the Warriors looked like the team they’ve always been, winning titles for years. Now that the Celtics have seen what the Warriors are doing in the heat of the moment, they need to get to their next level.
“Overall, every experience we have, we’ve learned and grown,” Brown said. “These opportunities right now, playing at the highest level, on one of the biggest stages, (are) also times to learn. Sometimes, on nights like tonight, it’s hard to suffer a tough loss at home. We have to have short-term memory and prepare for the next game, come and play Celtics basketball.
The advantage is that Boston has always reacted. Game 3 was their first test to bounce back in the Finals, and they passed it. This moment is different. Game 2 was over before the fourth quarter even started. Game 4 showed the Warriors can take them to the wire and come out on top. The Celtics have so often looked like the best team just taken down by those remarkable quick outbursts from Curry, but they can limit them to a few times a game.
Now they know the longer Golden State is in the game, the more Curry is going to keep coming.
“But it’s the final, the art of competition. They came here feeling like they had to win,” Tatum said. ” It was not easy. I think that’s kind of the beauty of it, that it’s not going to be easy. It shouldn’t be.
(Photo by Steph Curry and Al Horford: Kyle Terada/USA Today)