NBA

NBA Finals: Celtics pit elite defense against Warriors' league-leading offense

By Sports Desk June 01, 2022

The Boston Celtics have made sure to do it the hard way en route to the NBA Finals.

Sometimes this can suggest a team's name is on the trophy; look at Real Madrid's remarkable run in European football's Champions League before winning their record-extending 14th title.

The Celtics, an organisation with similar prestige, will hope they can now follow suit.

After all, this is a team who reached the turn of the year with a 17-19 record under a rookie coach, then recovered to take the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

Having worked so hard to secure home court in the second round of the playoffs, the Celtics lost to a Milwaukee Bucks outfit missing Khris Middleton in Game 5, falling 3-2 behind in the series and requiring another fightback.

Then the Celtics again failed to make the most of the Boston crowd in the Eastern Conference Finals, allowing the Miami Heat to return home for a Game 7.

Still, the Celtics made it through, and now they must take on the Golden State Warriors, back in contention and looking to extend the sort of dynasty Madrid would be proud of.

The Warriors are going to their sixth Finals in eight seasons; Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have played in each of them.

On the other hand, the Celtics are in their first Finals since 2010 – Curry's rookie season. Not a single member of the Boston roster has reached this stage before.

And yet, against the Warriors of all teams, the Celtics should have little to fear.

This is a battle of defense versus offense – Boston allowed a league-low 104.5 points per game in the regular season, while Golden State have scored a season-high 114.5 points per game in the playoffs – and it is a battle the Celtics have won numerous times in recent seasons.

In the 10 years since the Steph-Klay-Draymond Warriors came together, the Celtics are 10-10 against Golden State. Boston are the only team with a winning record (9-7) against Steve Kerr's Warriors, and they are a hugely impressive 7-3 in this matchup since drafting Jayson Tatum in 2017.

Before splitting this season's two-game series, the Celtics had won five in a row against the Warriors.

The key to this success has been defense. The Celtics have held both the Steph-Klay-Draymond Warriors (103.3 points per game) and Kerr's Warriors (104.4) to fewer points than any other defense. The same is true of Boston in Tatum's five years in the league, during which they have outscored Golden State 110.7-103.1 on average.

In Curry and Thompson, the Warriors boast two of the best shooters of all time, yet the Celtics have repeatedly forced them to take bad shots.

In the past five years, the Warriors have attempted just 83.2 field goals per game against the Celtics – only mustering fewer against the Detroit Pistons (80.8) – yet they have had a lofty 36.5 three-point attempts on average in these games. That means 43.9 per cent of Golden State's field goal attempts against the Celtics since 2017 have come from beyond the arc, attempting a higher percentage of their shots from deep against the Brooklyn Nets alone (44.1).

Given the talent in this Warriors team, shooting from range is not generally an issue, yet they have made just 31.8 per cent of those threes – again only performing worse against the Nets (31.4 per cent).

This has contributed to the Warriors making a meagre 43.1 per cent of their field goals against the Celtics, comfortably their worst rate against any team over this period.

Still, with the title on the line, the Warriors will undoubtedly back themselves to overcome this hurdle.

Curry (52.6 per cent), Thompson (50.0) and Jordan Poole (50.0) are all counted among the 10 players to attempt 10 or more contested shots (with the closest defender within two feet) and make at least half in this postseason.

Curry and Poole are two of only five players to make such a shot from three-point range, although that Golden State trio are a combined two-for-eight from beyond the arc in these circumstances – a record that does not look quite so bad next to Heat wing Max Strus' miserable one-for-seven shooting on contested threes. Four of those low-percentage shots came in the Celtics series alone.

The Warriors have not yet faced an elite defense in this playoff run, with the four best teams on that end of the floor operating in the East.

It figures that the best offense should emerge from the West, where teams averaged 109.2 points per game in the postseason, while the standout defense came out of the East, with playoff teams averaging 103.9 points.

The Finals will surely, therefore, be decided by what sort of series this becomes.

Tatum may be out to prove himself as one of the best players in the world, but the Celtics' success in keeping Curry, Thompson and Poole quiet is likely to be far more pivotal to their hopes.

As long ago as December, when his team were toiling, Celtics coach Ime Udoka explained: "The identity is to rely on defense, be a great defensive team and give ourselves a chance every night as far as that."

They have done that just about ever since – and now it is time to prove their winning identity can be a title-winning identity.

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