In his post-game interview, Isaiah Thomas told ESPN's J.A. Adande that "we just tried to make it tough on these guys. We're a defensive minded team and that's what we did tonight." That's certainly true. In the game of the year, the Celtics were able to simultaneously disrupt the Warriors' rhythm on offense and stay cool against a defense that ranks top-4 in the NBA.
Record-wise, Golden State is clearly the far superior team at 68-8, but if we're talking match-ups, Boston is a unique threat. The Warriors have arguably the two best perimeter players in the league, but the Celtics can counter with arguably the best defensive back court. The Celtics forced 22 Warrior turnovers (their 5th highest total of the season) that lead to 27 points on the other end.
Boston has utilized the same defensive principles all year: run shooters off the three point line, direct drivers into help, and stay active off the ball. Here's a good example from early in the game:
Thomas shades Curry on the weak side towards the baseline and into help from Sullinger. Active hands from Turner generate a fast break and 2 of Boston's 27 points off turnovers with an Amir Johnson lay up.
Here's another example on the strong side of the ball. Curry drives again, but a quick jab tag from Turner and recovery from Johnson gives him zero options after he leaves the floor. The Celtics' defense keeps you constantly thinking and re-thinking your next move. If you're lucky to get past the initial defender, you'll have to deal with the gauntlet of hands trying to strip you of the ball and a Sullinger-sized wall at the end. Boston rattled Curry enough to the tune of nine turnovers in the game.
The scary thing is, that defense didn't necessarily shut down Golden State. They still scored 106 points and finished with a 103.2 offensive rating for the night. That's better than more than half the league's average offensive efficiency. The Warriors shot 43 threes and made 20 for a blistering 46.5% from behind the arc. They've only made more threes in three other games and all were wins in blowout fashion. So, despite some pretty good defense, the Celtics had to come up big on the offensive end as well.
And they did and it came in individual waves. It was a concerted effort in the first half by Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, and Jared Sullinger to pick up after Isaiah Thomas' 0-for, but it was Thomas and a new pair of shoes that dueled with Steph Curry in the third. It was Marcus Smart attacking Marreese Speights then late game heroics from Turner closing out the fourth. With all apologies to Thomas, it was the "we are one superstar" attitude that helped match Golden State's fire power. The Warriors' Big Three combined for 60 points with Harrison Barnes chipping in 14, but the Celtics--without Jae Crowder--matched them point for point with 28 assists on 41 made field goals.
However, here's the most telling stat of the night. Defending the Warriors can be demoralizing. Even if you play perfect defense for 23 seconds, Curry will still splash a 30-footer in your face. In Boston's four games against the Warriors over the last two seasons (that have all been decided by five points or less), Stevens has preached sticking to the plan and not overreacting to hero shots. On Friday night, Curry was an efficient 9-for-19 from the field, but he made 8 of his 14 threes, including many from near half court, with the clock winding down and off busted coverages that left him fairly open. That could be maddening for an opposing team, but Boston showed maturity on the road. Of Curry's 10 scoring plays (including free throws), the Celtics scored on 9 of the ensuing possessions. They took punches, many of them Curry haymakers, and punched back.
It's easy to overreact to beating the world champs and ending their 54-game home winning streak. That was the win of the year, not just for this team but for the entire NBA. This is a good young team that has a firm foundation for the franchise's rebuild. With cap space and draft picks at Danny Ainge's disposal this summer, the Celtics could be contending very soon.
However, this team isn't about dwelling in the past and prophesying the future. Boston has been all about playing in the moment. During stretches of last season and early this year, this was a team plagued by losing big leads in the fourth quarter and losing games in the clutch, but a win like this coupled with the thriller in Cleveland back in February show just how far this team has come. In his post-game presser, Brad Stevens remarked that the "progress is not in the result. The progress was in the poise." We don't talk about that enough when it comes to the rebuild. Despite their overabundance of assets, the Celtics didn't make a big splash in February's trade deadline, but allowing this team to stick together may have been the best path. Continuity and consistency has given this team confidence and you need that to win games like this and more importantly, closing out series in the playoffs. And yes, raising another banner.
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