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The Warriors’ Defense Is Impossible To Overlook

Even on nights when he notches a triple-single, Draymond Green has a knack for making himself the main character. 

During and after the Golden State Warriors’ equalizer against the Boston Celtics in Sunday’s Game 2 of the NBA Finals, it was the non-basketball stuff that gained attention. There was the early lead-blocking of Grant Williams — a play that resulted in Williams getting dinged with a personal foul — and the elbow joust shortly thereafter that earned Green a technical. There was the general and persistent huffiness: the butting in on referees’ conferences, the motivational stylings that even the aggro-est of travel-team dads might deem a little much. The apex came when Green crashed into Jaylen Brown on a 3-pointer, used him as a footrest and shoved him in the back in the span of a five-second spat — and somehow avoided a night-ending second tech. Postgame, Green termed his contributions an “attitude adjustment.” “If I’m not sending that message,” he said, “who is sending that message?”

It took more than making a scowlier face, though, to slow down the team that outscored the Warriors by 24 fourth-quarter points in Game 1. Maybe the most telling sequence, for Green and the Golden State defense as a whole, came in the second quarter, when Brown drove from the left wing late in the shot clock. Brown has spent key stretches of the postseason rescuing doomed possessions, but here he ran into quicksand. First Green shot a right hand into Brown’s dribble, forcing him to pick up the ball. Then, while Brown pivoted in search of an outlet, Green mirrored the moves, eating up more airspace with each one. The last-ditch fadeaway fell well short and said enough; Green didn’t have to celebrate it.

The A-plot from Sunday’s game was the Warriors simplifying their offensive approach and letting Stephen Curry pick at the relative weak points in a forbidding Celtics defense. But the win — and the Warriors’ resuscitated hopes in the series — owed as much to Golden State rediscovering a defense capable of gumming up Boston’s attack. As the Warriors scrapped their zone and slotted Green mostly onto Brown — instead of Al Horford, where he had spent most of the first contest — the Celtics’ numbers plummeted: a 62.9 effective field-goal percentage in Game 1 dropped to 43.5 in Game 2, per Cleaning the Glass. Closer examination shows that even that mark was propped up by Jayson Tatum’s hot shooting from distance; excluding garbage time, the Celtics made 44.4 percent of their threes but just 25 percent of their midrange shots and 33.3 percent of their attempts at the rim — that last mark the lowest of any team this postseason.

Pre-Finals hype cycles require the sorting of teams into camps — the more discrete the better, for promo purposes — but the idea that this series would come down to the point-piling Warriors versus the prohibitive Celtics was always too tidy by half. Though Boston was the NBA’s stingiest team over the regular season, Golden State finished second in defensive rating, a mere four-tenths of a point back of first place.

Like the Celtics, the Warriors have a battalion of rangy perimeter dudes — the spring-tendoned Andrew Wiggins, the born-for-this Gary Payton II — orbiting a generational stopper. Also like the Celtics, they have the corporate knowledge it takes to knit individual skill sets into a cohesive system. Before washing up in the Bay, Wiggins hadn’t been called a defensive plus since his pre-draft profiles, and Payton had previously failed to catch on with five NBA clubs. Now, Wiggins has become a reliable, switch-adept cog (Golden State’s defense improved by 1.4 points per 100 possessions when he took the floor, over the season), and Payton — just recovered from his second-round broken elbow — rated fourth in the whole dang league in defensive RAPTOR, one spot ahead of Green.

“For me personally, I wanted to come out and establish ourselves on that end right away,” Green said on his podcast after Game 2. “And although they took a 13-5 lead to start the game, they felt us the entire time.” While there’s a danger in taking Green at his self-evaluative word, the Golden State consensus late Sunday was that the team’s main adjustment was to wrench the Get After It dial rightward. “It was mostly physicality, intensity right from the beginning,” Steve Kerr said, and the tape indeed shows play after play of the Warriors getting all the way into the Celtics’ faces. 

On the first Boston possession of the game, Green stepped knee-to-knee with Horford and tied him up. The play didn’t mean much — Boston won the ensuing tip — but it nevertheless established a theme. In the second quarter, Curry, a stronger and more competitive defender than he was early in his career, snatched up a loose ball after Green forced an errant pass from Tatum; later in the game, he somehow walled up Horford on the block. If Curry’s montage of ball-screen ballistics summarized Golden State’s third quarter on the offensive end, Wiggins working around a pin-down and newspaper-on-windshielding Tatum into a hopeless stepback three did the same on D.

The pattern of these yo-yoing NBA playoffs figures to hold; nothing about how the Warriors played Sunday night is necessarily permanent. Even before you factor in off-day adjustments, there is Golden State’s tendency to ease up — which confers a kind of legitimacy on Green’s Patton shtick. The Warriors’ opponents have cleared an effective field-goal percentage of 60 four times over the course of the playoffs, including the Celtics in Game 1. (Only one of Boston’s opponents have managed this: Brooklyn, way back in the first game of the first round.) If the Warriors have the ability to get stops as well as anybody in the league, the Celtics define themselves by consistently doing so. Despite taking the tougher path to the Finals, going up against the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving duo and then the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, Boston has notched a defensive rating over the postseason that beats Golden State’s by nearly 5 points.

Sunday night, though, showed how staunch the Warriors can be at their best, with an optimized game plan and a revved-up leader. The proportions are tricky. The threat of lethargy lurks on one side, the possibility that Green will earn a suspension for performing a pro wrestling maneuver on Marcus Smart on the other. But when they get it all right, Golden State can make things plenty tough enough.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Robert O’Connell is a writer from Kansas. His work can be found on The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and elsewhere.

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