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Playoffs past, future Finals: how the Celtics run have prepared them for these final two games

It’s all come down to this.

2019 NBA All-Star Game David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Game #106.

All the sports cliches will tell you that you have to take each game one game at a time. Don’t look ahead. Don’t look back. But with only two remaining in The Finals and the Celtics facing elimination in their final game at TD Garden, it’s hard not to look back and remember just how much each game and each series has led to this Game 6 tonight and a potential Game 7 in the Bay on Sunday night.

The Warriors have posed similar problems as the opponents before them and the Celtics have figured them out (maybe not as quick as we would hope) in a sweep of the Nets and two grueling series against the Bucks and Heat. Now, can all that corporate knowledge that they’ve earned and learned over the past two months put them over the top and hang Banner 18 this fall?

The Greatest Scorer of The Generation Test

The best comp for Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors was Boston’s first opponent, Kevin Durant and the Nets. Because of his unlimited range, ability to stretch the floor, and command of defensive attention, KD is a decent approximation of his former teammate.

The Celtics have the advantage of having multiple defenders that can hold their own against even the best scorers of the game. But admittedly, it hasn’t looked that way. Over the first four games, the matchup between The Greatest period Shooter period Ever period and the Defensive Player of the Year tilted heavily in Curry’s favor.

“We haven’t gone after (Curry) much honestly, like Durant or some of those other teams,” Ime Udoka said earlier in the series. “Some of that is due to the personnel he has behind him and the playmakers that he has. For us, we rely on our one-on-one defense. Our guys use their length to contest and our bigs being up as well.”

To Curry’s credit, he’s had an iconic Finals. Through the first four games, he averaged 34 points on 50% shooting (49% from behind the arc) with four assists. However, in Game 5, that all changed. Boston decided to shadow Curry with or without the ball and recorded their best defensive effort against him in the series, hitting just 7-of-22 and missing all nine three-pointers.

Every game is different, and we can’t expect the Celtics to match those numbers or more so, Curry not to figure out how to be more effective, but Game 5’s defensive pressure and really, Boston’s run through the Eastern Conference is proof positive that they have the individual defenders and team scheme to beat the league’s best. With two games remaining in The Finals, they’ll need to figure out the balance between stopping Curry and limiting his teammates around him.

The Analytics Exam

Against the Bucks, Boston had to switch gears. Milwaukee certainly posed a singular threat in Giannis Antetokounmpo on the level of Curry and Durant and Boston was able to cover him with a combination of one-on-one defenders (Al Horford and Grant Williams). Defensively though, Milwaukee sold out on restricted area field goal attempts. With Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Bobby Portis in their front court, the Bucks would pack the paint to prevent easy looks around the rim.

Against the Nets, the Celtics averaged 27 FGA’s in the restricted area; that number dropped dramatically to 18.3 in the Eastern Conference semis and then shot back up against the Heat to 22.3.

Through five games, Boston has yet to solve their issues at the rim. Without boasting a giant frontline like the Bucks, the Warriors have still limited the Celtics to just 12.2 shot attempts in the restricted area. They’ve been good mixing up their help defense as soon as either Tatum or Brown put a foot in the paint and, as explained below, not fouling if and when they get to the rim.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Hand-To-Hand Combat Drill

The veteran Heat were banged up, but what they lacked in speed and agility, they made up for in savviness, smarts, and an ultra-aggressiveness with their defensive pressure. Boston took advantage. In their seven-game series, the Celtics made 164 of their 201 free throws, averaging 28.7 FTA’s a game. To put that into context, they shot just 22.8 FTA’s a night vs. the Bucks and even fewer (20.7) against the Nets.

The Warriors are arguably as aggressive as Miami, but that hasn’t translated to trips to the free throw line in The Finals (21.4 FTA’s per game). Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Gary Payton II are the best trio of wing defenders that Boston has faced so far. They deserve a ton of credit for limiting Brown and Tatum easy points.

Unfortunately, when Boston has gone to the line, they have failed to capitalize. In a 10-point loss in Game 5, the Celtics missed 10 of 31 free throws, their most in the entire Finals so far. Tonight, Zach Zarba is leading an officiating crew (with David Guthrie and John Goble). Some context:

The Celtics are 11-10 overall in the playoffs when Zarba is part of the ref crew, though Boston is just 1-4 in games that he’s been a part of this postseason. The last game that he officiated was Game 2 against the Warriors, a blowout loss for the C’s in San Francisco.

He was also part of the crews during Game 3 against the Bucks, and Games 1 and 6 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals — all Boston losses. The only game that the Celtics have won with Zarba on the floor was their very first game of the postseason, when Boston won at the buzzer against the Brooklyn Nets.

In that Game 2 loss in San Francisco, the Celtics shot just seventeen free throws in the blowout.

The 2008 champs played 26 games in the playoffs. Even after winning 66 games in the regular season and throttling the league not unlike this Celtics team did after January, they still needed to figure things out in May and June. This team will need to play 25 and win two more if they want to hang Banner 18 and while the learning curve has been just as steep for this younger squad, time and time again, they’ve proven resilient to this point. There’s no reason to think that they won’t tonight.

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