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Still struggling with the champs: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Warriors

Boston lost in a way that brought back bad memories of the Finals

NBA: Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

1. It wasn’t a great night for the Boston Celtics. In a loss that brought back far too many of the bad feelings from the 2022 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors rolled to a comfortable victory.

There’s no place to start but with Jayson Tatum. This space doesn’t think the Warriors are necessarily in Tatum’s head, but he did have a very poor game. Tatum shot just 6-of-21, as he couldn’t find his range on his jumper and missed several shots inside. He’s entitled to a bad game here and there; this was just a really tough spot for it.

But the blame doesn’t all fall on Tatum. Marcus Smart had one of his worst games of the season too. Derrick White couldn’t make a jumper. Grant Williams looked tentative. And Joe Mazzulla stuck with some of the same defensive coverages that the Warriors ate up in the Finals.

As multiple Celtics said postgame, it was just one loss and it won’t define their season. That’s the right approach. And, for all we know, Boston might only see Golden State one more time this season.

Winning on Saturday night wouldn’t have been revenge for the Finals. That’s over and done with and the Warriors are still the 2022 champs, no matter what. But playing better, or at least playing differently in so many ways, would have made this loss slightly more palatable.

2. Arguably the most frustrating part of this loss was Boston stubbornly sticking with the drop coverage technique against the Warriors in pick-and-roll actions. This became a major storyline during the Finals, as Al Horford, Robert Williams, Grant Williams and others repeatedly dropped back when a Golden State guard came off a screen.

The reason for playing drop coverage vs switching is that it keeps you out of the blender. When the Warriors get you switched and scrambling, even just a little, they put you in the cycle and swirl you to death with an endless stream of cuts, screens and passes.

Still, you have to pick your poison and letting Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and to a lesser extent Jordan Poole, walk into jumper after jumper seems like death by simplicity.

Trigger warning: These clips may spark PTSD from the 2022 NBA Finals.

Blake Griffin is guarding this play, along with Malcolm Brogdon. Neither of them were involved in the Finals, but this play looks like so many plays in June did. Griffin lays back, Brogdon can’t get over the screen in time, Curry buries the three:

It looks like Jaylen Brown is anticipating a switch here, as he sticks with Jonathan Kuminga. Again, Griffin is way back and Thompson walks into an easy pullup:

One last time, this time off a scramble play. Kevon Looney doesn’t even really set this screen, but he’s in the way enough that Brown has to work around him because Griffin is back by the lane:

3. Sticking with the drop coverage…it’s not really Blake Griffin’s fault in any of the above clips. He’s executing the scheme as designed. Without Al Horford or Rob Williams, Griffin started, and he can’t really execute the switching scheme. (It’s fair to note Boston still dropped with Horford and Williams in the Finals too, and they are far more athletic than Griffin at this point.)

Late in the first half, Boston went with Grant Williams at the five and found some success playing at the level of the ball. The handful of times they tried that with Griffin, the Warriors reset and attacked him off the dribble and got Boston’s defense moving. That’s the blender stuff the Celtics wanted to avoid.

When the teams play again, assuming both are healthy, look for Boston to play their bigs up. Here’s a good example of how Grant Williams being up allows for Derrick White to get over the screen to block Stephen Curry’s shot:

Curry will burn you sometimes on these plays, because he’s one of the best players in the history of the league. But it’s better to make him work than to let him, and others, dribble into jumper after jumper.

4. There was an odd lack of focus in this game from the Celtics at times. If you have to find anyone in transition, you have to find Stephen Curry. Jayson Tatum points out the pickups to everyone, but fails to find Curry himself and the result is a wide-open triple:

5. All season long, Boston has been one of the better transition defense teams in the league. They limit opportunities for the opponent and regularly shut down the handful the other side gets. But, speaking again to a lack of focus, they let Golden State get some really easy ones in this game. This back-to-back set was a glaring example of bad defense.

First, both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum got caught watching Blake Griffin hustle. Look at Marcus Smart telling them to get back to pick up Klay Thompson on the leak out. Smart’s shoulders even slump when he sees the ball heading to Thompson:

On the very next possession, Brown gets caught watching again. This is his rotation back to make:

This set of two terrible plays drew a timeout from Joe Mazzulla. In a rare moment, Mazzulla ripped into his team, likely for losing focus and gifting the Warriors two easy layups.

6. When Boston stepped up to the level of the ball, they were able to make some things happen. That led to easy transition opportunities of their own.

Everyone is up tight here. Jayson Tatum gets the steal and Jaylen Brown lobs it back to him for the dunk:

Later in the quarter, Tatum jumped Curry and paid Brown back with a lob of his own:

On the next play, the help is there, and Marcus Smart nabs the steal before Brown and Malcolm Brogdon run the break:

The focus will be on the negatives, but there were good things Boston can bring into the next matchup with Golden State.

7. With Jayson Tatum struggling, Jaylen Brown kept the Celtics within striking distance for most of the night. Brown did it by flashing his versatile scoring game. We’ve raved in this space about Brown’s midrange pullup. Extending that back a few feet, like this, will open up his game even more:

This is a good example of Brown’s change of pace ability. He drives hard, but then slows everything down to hit the Warriors with the fake before making the layup:

This is another example of getting up into the Warriors space on the screen actions. Brown picks it off and then overpowers the defenders for the layup:

On a night where a lot of Celtics had issues, Brown stood out. As he did so often in the Finals, Brown stepped up.

8. Late in the game, as the Warriors called timeout to empty the bench, Grant Williams got ejected:

There seemed to be some confusion, including from Williams himself. In the NBA, if you purposely throw, or in this case punch, the ball into the stands, it’s an automatic ejection. It’s been this way for years, and there are a handful of these ejections every season. Williams is also likely looking at a fine, as that’s par for the course in these situations.

9. Despite the loss, some Celtics stepped up. We already highlighted Jaylen Brown. But we want to focus on the two veteran additions for a bit here. While the defensive scheme wasn’t working, Blake Griffin was. He finished with 13 points and seven rebounds in his third consecutive impactful start with Al Horford out. Boston can’t ask for anything more than what Griffin has given them this season. He’s been terrific.

We’ve repeatedly written or said some version of “Malcolm Brogdon will give the Celtics what they were missing in the Finals” and he did. Brogdon finished with 16 points, five rebounds and four assists. The only really question: When Boston was making their final push, why wasn’t Brogdon on the floor?

10. The Celtics are now 3-1 on the trip. This was a game that Boston fans wanted really, really badly. Maybe next time, with Al Horford and Rob Williams back, the Celtics will get it.

But again, this game can’t define anything for Boston. They get right back to it on Monday in a the first of a back-to-back Los Angeles set. First up are the Clippers, followed by the Lakers. The Celtics have a chance to go 5-1 on a road trip that features games against six playoff hopefuls, including several title contenders. That’s more important than getting one single victory, no matter how good it would have felt to beat the Warriors.

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