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Golden State’s Half-Court Defense Is Good, But Boston’s Half-Court Offense Has Been Better

Late in the third quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Jayson Tatum came off a screen from Al Horford and walked himself right into a wide-open three pointer that splashed through the net. As he did so, his defender on the play, Andrew Wiggins, was several steps below the 3-point arc, with his feet nearly at the free-throw line as Tatum rose up to fire.

The camera immediately flashed to Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who was incensed on the sideline. Kerr motioned with his arms and barked at Wiggins, “Up! Up, Andrew! Up!” Kerr wanted Wiggins — and the rest of his team — to pick up his man higher up on the floor and not allow Boston to get into its offense so easily.

For the most part, the Warriors executed that strategy quite well in Game 2. According to Second Spectrum, the Warriors defenders picked up the Celtics players initiating the team’s offense an average of 39.5 feet away from the rim during their victory — just shy of 5 feet farther out on the floor than they had in Game 1. That increased pressure played a sizable role in Boston’s efficiency in its half-court offense1 dropping from 114.1 points per 100 possessions in the series opener, according to Cleaning the Glass, to just 77.1 points per 100 in Game 2 — and in Golden State’s evening the series at one game apiece. 

In Game 3, though, something was different again. The Warriors picked up the Celtics’ half-court offense nearly as high out as they had in Game 2 — 38.3 feet from the rim, to be exact. But Boston found a way to counteract the strategy and again scored 114.1 points per 100 possessions on those plays.

In two of three Finals games played so far, the Celtics have figured out a way to score incredibly efficiently against one of the NBA’s best half-court defenses: Golden State’s 91.2 half-court points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions allowed during the regular season ranked third in the NBA.

As has been a theme throughout these playoffs, the Celtics have gone pick-and-roll hunting, repeatedly putting Stephen Curry in pick-and-roll action in an attempt to engineer favorable matchups for Tatum and/or Jaylen Brown. Curry mostly held his own when called upon to defend Tatum or Brown in space, but the degree to which the threat of those players driving against Curry panicked the Warriors defense led to scrambled help, which created opportunities elsewhere.

It was admirable that Curry (for the most part) did not simply get bowled over by Tatum and Brown, but there were several occasions where he could not keep them out of the paint. That was emblematic of another issue the Celtics have caused for Golden State’s defense. Boston got the ball into the paint on 50 of its 77 half-court possessions in Game 3, according to Second Spectrum — a 65 percent rate.

The Celtics have gotten into the lane with increasing frequency in each game of the series so far. In each of the most recent two games, it’s been at a rate higher than what Golden State allowed its opponents during the regular season.

The Warriors have been letting the Celtics inside more often

Share of half-court possessions in which Golden State’s opponents have gotten the ball into the paint, by game of the NBA Finals and over the regular season

Time frame Possessions In Paint Paint %
Finals Game 3 77 50 64.9%
Finals Game 2 81 50 61.7
Finals Game 1 77 44 57.1
Regular season 6,734 4,096 60.8

Source: Second Spectrum

Golden State’s defense at the rim has been surprisingly lacking during this series, with Boston converting 70 percent of its shots inside the restricted area, per NBA Advanced Stats. That’s quite a bit higher than the 65.7 percent the Warriors allowed during the regular season and higher than the 67.8 percent conversion rate they had yielded in the earlier rounds of the playoffs. Some of that interior effectiveness can be attributed to Kevon Looney’s minutes being cut with each successive game, as well as to Draymond Green’s foul trouble and lethargy. But some of it is simply about Boston’s ball-handlers making the right plays at the right times and creating high-value looks.

That’s been true whether they’ve gotten all the way into the paint or not. Tatum, in particular, has done well to read the help defense Golden State has sent his way, and in Game 3, he made several excellent passes as soon as the helper took a step toward him. (He did barrel into the lane and try to go through the help on multiple occasions, because the Celtics just can’t help a barrage of turnovers once every 10 minutes or so.) Firing that pass early gives extra time for a shooter to load up his shot, but it also allows the receiver to work against an on-the-move defender, giving him an advantage should he want to pump and drive.

The Celtics figured out another way to win on the interior in Game 3: dominating the offensive glass. Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Horford and Brown each finished the game with three offensive boards. Boston grabbed the rebound on 37.5 percent of its missed shots on Wednesday night, the highest mark any team has recorded against the Warriors this season. The Celtics’ seven second-half offensive rebounds were particularly impactful, with the Williamses (no relation) creating multiple second-chance opportunities that resulted in layups, fouls or both; and Boston’s overall willingness to hit the floor and fight for loose balls saved multiple possessions from defensive boards or turnovers.

As the series has moved along, Boston has seemed to spurn its two-big lineups featuring both Horford and Robert Williams, with that combination sharing the floor for 16 minutes in Game 1, 12 in Game 2 and just 10 in Game 3. After being outscored by a combined 14 points in the first two games, though, the Horford-Williams lineups were plus-12 in Game 3, and the duo was able to leverage its size advantage repeatedly in the second half.

It would be one thing if the Celtics were just creating opportunities inside against one of the league’s best paint defenses. But they’re also ripping nets from the perimeter. Boston has shot 49 of 113 (43.4 percent) from three through three games, even shooting well from deep (15 of 37) in its Game 2 loss. Green said after Game 1 that the Warriors were comfortable with players like Horford, Marcus Smart and Derrick White beating them from deep, if that’s how the Celtics were going to win. That trio has shot just 6 of 19 from deep in the two games since combining to go 15 of 23 in Game 1, but Brown and Tatum joined the fun and combined to knock down 7 of 17 treys in Game 3.

The only way to find success against a defense as good as Golden State’s is to test it from every level of the floor, especially in the half court. The Celtics show an occasional and frustrating tendency to collapse into what could charitably be described as nonsense offense, and, much like their opponents in this series, they turn the ball over with maddening frequency. But they also have a combination of size, athleticism and talent that can pose significant problems for the Warriors — and so far, it’s doing exactly that.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. On non-garbage time possessions.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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