With about four-and-a-half minutes left in the third quarter on Sunday, Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum swished an open 3 to cut their deficit to six points. It was a clean look off of a simple pick-and-roll, surrendered because the Golden State Warriors messed up their defensive coverage. As soon as it went in, the broadcast cut to Warriors coach Steve Kerr telling Andrew Wiggins that he was supposed to be higher up:
You don't just let Tatum walk into open 3s. That play, however, was an anomaly. It represented just about the only easy points that Boston scored during the third quarter.
It also represented the last meaningful field goal that Boston made. The Warriors went on a 25-2 run immediately afterward. When the Celtics pulled their starters with 10:45 left in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, they had scored 82.1 points per 100 possessions. Their offense looked nowhere near as smooth as it did when they were dominating down the stretch of Thursday's opener.
Al Horford, who on Thursday scored 26 points on 9-for-12 shooting, including 6-for-8 from 3-point range, managed just two points and didn't attempt a single 3-pointer. Marcus Smart scored two points, turned the ball over five times and missed all three of his 3-point attempts. Tatum scored 28 points on 8-for-19 shooting, bouncing back from a rough shooting night, but his assist total dropped from 13 to three.
"It's hard to get an open shot out there, and it's supposed to be difficult," Kerr said Golden State evened the series with a 107-88 win. "Game 1 was too easy for Boston with the looks they were getting in that fourth quarter."
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On the first possession, Draymond Green tied up Al Horford behind the 3-point line, forcing a jump ball. On the Warriors' next defensive possession, Klay Thompson picked up Horford and Green took Jaylen Brown, a configuration that they used for much of the game. Green downplayed the matchups, though, and all the disruption that he caused individually, saying that they collectively made an "attitude adjustment."
"I thought everybody was more engaged," Kerr said. "It was pretty obvious, just our level of force and physicality was ramped up quite a bit, and it had to be. What Boston did in the second half, you know, fourth quarter the other night, we knew we had to come with a much better focus and sense of aggression, and I thought that started right from the beginning. Draymond played a huge role in that."
Golden State put the game away by going on a 12-minute rampage during the second half, in which they outscored the Celtics 41-12. Multiple Warriors, however, stressed that this was possible because of the way the game started.
"We just tried to take away some of their easy looks early," Kevon Looney said. "Last game they got real comfortable. They got into a rhythm. I think Marcus Smart put a lot of pressure on the rim the last game, and Brown and Tatum put a lot of pressure on the rim and they was able to kick it out to shooters. We did a better job controlling the ball at the point of attack and in turn was able to limit their 3-point attempts and keep Horford and Smart from getting wide-open looks."
Boston turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, and nine of them were live-ball turnovers. Tatum and Brown accounted for 36 of the Celtics' 50 points before halftime, and Derrick White was their only teammate who had made more than one field goal.
"The offense wasn't as crisp with the ball movement and passing," Celtics coach Ime Udoka said.
When Golden State's defense is at its best, it appears to be a step ahead of the offense at all times. By the time Horford comes down with the ball on this early-third-quarter possession, Looney has already rotated to him and Wiggins has rotated to Robert Williams III:
On a another third-quarter stop, every Warrior on the court contributes: Wiggins pressures Tatum near halfcourt, then navigates two screens; Gary Payton II gets two feet outside the 3-point line on the Tatum-Horford pick-and-roll, then pressures Horford and switches onto Derrick White; Curry fights over a screen then switches onto Horford, moves his feet and gets a deflection; Green contests Smart's 3 and almost knocks the ball away from Horford; Otto Porter Jr. doubles Horford and comes up with the loose ball:
Payton, who played 25 minutes in his first game back from the fractured elbow he suffered in the first week of May in the second game of the second round, said that Golden State was "kind of soft in the first game." Green said that "everybody played with more force," across the board. The Warriors had the second-best defense in the NBA during the regular season, and they brought out Boston's worst qualities. The Celtics can get sped up and sloppy against physical perimeter defense, and when they don't take care of the ball, their problems can snowball.
Udoka said the team needed to be stronger with the ball and stop looking for fouls when attacking the basket, points he has made after most of Boston's playoff losses. Horford said that the Celtics have to "play at our own pace, make sure that we're driving the ball, driving and kicking." They're both completely correct, but it's hard to do all of that with Wiggins and Payton applying pressure on the perimeter, Green roaming everywhere and everybody else moving on a string.
Through two games, both teams have enjoyed stretches in which the opposing offense stagnates, takes tough shots and gives them opportunities to score in transition. After completely losing control in Game 1, Golden State stayed steady by stacking stops on top of stops.
"Against a team like that, you can't let your foot off the gas pedal," Green said. "All they need to see is one shot go in, and it can start a domino effect."
This is the mindset that Green wants to carry forward with the series shifting to Boston. The matchup advantages that the Celtics exploited a few days ago have not disappeared, and they have bounced back from much worse in these playoffs. In Game 3, they're going to do everything in their power to be sharper, so the Warriors must be sharper, too.
"It's not going to get any easier, it's only going to get tougher," Green said. "Have to take that up another couple notches."