After a thrilling Game 3 victory, the Boston Celtics will face off against the Golden State Warriors for the fourth game in their NBA Finals series, with the Celtics just two wins away from lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Much like Game 2, the Celtics should expect the Warriors to come out of the gates hot, with increased physicality and intensity. For a Boston team that has struggled to match their opponents increased energy levels of late, this could be problematic, but if the Celtics want to be heading back to San Francisco needing just one more win to be crowned champions, they’re going to need to fight for it.
Here are three keys to winning Game 4.
Fighting fire with fire
This was the first possession of Game 2. The Warriors had pushed their pick-up points towards the logo, were sprinting into coverages, and had eyes only for the ball. Al Horford ends up getting stripped by Draymond Green. Boston never recovered from this moment, as the Warriors ramped up the intensity, and looked to bully their way to victory.
That type of early haymaker has been the Celtics' undoing throughout the post-season, as it seems they’re quite adept at throwing a punch, but they’re not so great at taking one back. What Boston needs tonight is a Tyson Fury performance, where even if they get hit with a huge blow that leaves them stunned for a minute or two, they find a way to get back to their feet and earn the victory.
In Game 3, we saw the Celtics lean into their athleticism, size, and explosiveness, as they bullied the Warriors around the rim - including grabbing boards and forcing second chance opportunities. Sometimes, a smaller opponent can be far more aggressive and will look to land the body blows needed to slow you down - that’s the Warriors' perimeter defense pinching at the point of attack and sending traps off pick-and-rolls. Other times, they will call for back-up, which in this instance would be Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody.
Both options for the Warriors come with their own set of pros and cons, and it’s Boston’s job to exploit every hole that each adjustment creates. It sounds so simple, yet in reality, this is where games are won and lost in the margins.
Key battle: Draymond Green vs. Everybody in the building.
Attacking corner actions
These corner actions for Tatum are an excellent way of hurting the Warriors' perimeter defense. Inverted screen forces the switch, creates space in the corner for screener to pop or fade, and opens scoring pockets and driving lanes.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) June 10, 2022
Been money all off-season. pic.twitter.com/ulrNBSFcjA
A big part of defense is limiting perimeter penetration, primarily due to their lack of rim protection and size down low. Boston has consistently found success when attacking aggressive perimeter defenses with corner actions like the one shown above. In fact, against the Miami Heat, we saw the Celtics begin to exploit “empty side” pick-and-rolls throughout the series, which helped ease the defensive pressure around driving lanes.
The Warriors can’t offer that level of pressure once you get downhill, simply because they lack the size and bulk to do so. But, Steph Curry and Co. are exceptionally gifted at clogging passing lanes, speeding guys up, and funneling ball-handlers into a crowd.
By springing guys free from the corner, Boston is creating a pocket of space to exploit if they so choose. For example, the screen could pop into the space to threaten a mid-range jumper or a potential baseline drive, or fade to the corner to provide spacing. The ball-handler can also attack that space off the dribble, they can post-up, pull-up, or get ahead of steam and really pressure the rim. Unlike what we saw against Miami, the Celtics are generally keeping the corners filled on the pick-and-roll, but they are utilizing pin-downs, primarily inverted with a small screening for a big, and so far, it’s been a recipe for success.
Continuing to be smart with penetration
It’s tricky. You’re bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic, and more explosive, yet if you focus too much on beating the Warriors' perimeter defense, you’re playing into their hands. That’s what they want you to do. They want you to flow into screen after screen, to drive towards the nail. They’ll pick you apart like that. They have picked Boston apart like that.
That’s why, in Game 3, the Celtics played their game and not Golden State’s. Yes, they still looked to penetrate, but they did so with intelligence — a sacrificial pawn to spring the queen free, if you will. Boston knew the Warriors would pinch, stunt, or trap, and they planned for it. Suddenly, by the time the defense had reacted to Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown penetrating, the ball was already traveling to its next destination, and then it was on the move again.
I read an awesome quote last week on social media, and it troubles me that I can’t remember who shared it, as that means I can’t credit them, but anyway, it read: “make the ball be the best athlete on the floor.” When you’re playing a team as active and intense as the Warriors, having the ball travel more than any other player will give you the greatest chance of success.
Win tonight, and you take control of the series. Lose, and everything is even heading into Game 5. We’re not at the win-or-go-home stage of this series yet, but the Celtics have the opportunity to expedite the process. Everything comes down to how this young Boston team handles the initial blow that Golden State will undoubtedly deliver.
The NBA Finals isn’t the time or place to shrink, nor is it the time or place to experiment. Both teams know what they’re capable of, they know what each other is capable of, and now it comes down to who wants it more, and most importantly, who can assert their game plan. Boston won that battle in Games 1 and 3, and now we hope they can string back-to-back wins together to do it again in Game 4.