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Celtics wear down Curry, small ball Warriors to piece together road victory

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It wasn’t pretty, but the Celtics came back to get a critical road win.

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Every win counts the same.

They all don’t have to be pretty, and Tuesday’s 111-107 victory over the Golden State Warriors felt less like a conquering of the Bay and more like an escape from Alcatraz.

Trouble set in early with defensive intensity and focus missing as the Celtics took the court for only the second time in the last six days. They trailed by eleven after the first quarter, an opening frame where Stephen Curry put up 17 points on 4-for-7 shooting from deep. At the quarter break, Brad Stevens mentioned his team’s poor execution of their coverages on Curry to the TNT broadcast team:

“I thought our attention to detail wasn’t [there]. You have to be up on [Stephen] Curry way more than we were, and obviously... we lost him on cuts early, and then we weren’t up [on him] the way we need to be.”

Letting Curry spring free for as many open looks as he got early was frustrating to watch, as the former two-time MVP was undoubtedly atop the scouting report and the focus of the Celts defensive game plan. It got to the point where Stevens even went back to a zone for a small stretch, abandoning the man-to-man look and hoping Curry wouldn’t sneak his way into open looks against a zone.

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

In the first quarter, both Tristan Thompson and Jaylen Brown were out of position in giving Curry too much cushion to find space. He’s a master at turning an inch into a mile, and the Warriors are always looking for him as soon as he inches free. The opening play of the game saw Thompson jump too far towards the handoff, leaving Brown out to dry as he got clipped on a screen. A little later, Brown sagged too far back in transition, letting Curry hide behind a teammate and bury a three:

Guarding Curry is a unique challenge, one that Thompson should be familiar with after his many clashes with the Warriors in The Finals. Yet Tristan’s man would routinely set screens on Boston guards, forcing Thompson to step up and get a contest on Curry.

Unfortunately, he was a half-step late in some crucial situations, where Steph was able to rise up and get his shot off:

The Celtics got their defense on Steph mostly under control after that. He only had two treys in the second half, both of which came in the final minute of the third quarter. Boston’s defense wasn’t poor otherwise, though the inability to lock into a game plan and the necessity to switch to zone for stretches continues to be a point of frustration.

When they were engaged and, as coach Stevens requested, picked up Curry higher on the floor as a group, good things happened:

Despite the early first half deficit and sluggish defensive start, the Celtics quickly climbed back into the driver’s seat. The turning point came in the second quarter, when Warriors center Kevon Looney sprained his ankle. Looney was Golden State’s only healthy center on the roster; rookie James Wiseman was out with an injured wrist. Instantly, the Warriors were supremely small, playing a combination of Juan Toscano-Anderson and Eric Paschall at the 5.

Stevens wisely didn’t try to go small to match the Warriors, but went bigger and pounded them on the glass. The Celtics recorded twelve offensive rebounds, wearing down the small Warriors in the process. With both Marcus Smart and Payton Pritchard absent due to injury, and game two of a back-to-back coming tomorrow in Sacramento where Kemba might rest, there was little advantage to going small.

The Warriors struggled to guard Boston one-on-one thanks to the size disadvantage and went to a 2-3 zone. While the Celtics took the bait and fired more perimeter jumpers, they capitalized on Golden State’s inability to rebound outside their area. Long shots have long rebounds, and the Celtics crashed the glass from the wings to create easy second-chance opportunities in the fourth quarter:

Boston went on a key 10-0 run in the middle of the fourth, their best streak of basketball of the night that ultimately gave them a lead they would hold onto. Those second-chance points and a few missed bunnies from Kelly Oubre Jr. helped launch their run.

A vicious slam from Jaylen in transition capped it off:

The Celtics were never able to get into a rhythm on offense outside of that run. A great shooting night from Grant Williams (15 points, 3-for-3 from deep) provided a much-needed spark off the bench. Jayson Tatum had 27 points and some timely buckets in isolation, and Tristan Thompson bullied the undersized Warriors on the interior in small doses. His hook shots were falling all night, a good sign since his scoring has been a bit stunted lately.

But the Celts had only had 16 assists on 39 made baskets. It’s by far their lowest total in a win this year; their previous low was 19 on January 4th against the Toronto Raptors. Combine that with 15 turnovers and it felt like a less than stellar outing from a team whose offensive potency has raised the bar for nightly expectations. It was an ugly win, but a win is a win, especially on the road.

There’s work to be done to get Jaylen, Jayson and Kemba all in lockstep on offense. A team with this many talented passers and scorers should be creating for each other a little more than they do. And with this many talented defenders, they should be able to lock in on the other end of the floor.

Regardless, you never apologize for a result. As Bill Belichick would say, “we’re on to Sacramento.”