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How Steph Curry and the Warriors Reclaimed Their Crown

The greatest compliment you can give Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors is that they made this seem pretty ordinary. Over the last few seasons, the Warriors have been as snakebitten as any team in the league, felled by injuries and unable to muster enough serotonin to muscle through mid-winter midwestern road trips. But as the Warriors polished off the Boston Celtics with a 103-90 Game 6 win, all that seemed to melt away—the ghosts of previous disappointments were finally able to pass through to the other side. 

In this sense, when Klay Thompson is pumping in dagger 3s, it’s easy to forget that he missed two full seasons and over 900 days with a torn ACL and a ruptured Achilles; there was once a world where Gary Payton II was prepping to join the Warriors as a video coordinator and Andrew Wiggins was a flighty near-bust, but it feels far removed from the one we live in now.  For most teams, a championship requires some elusive potion of talent and luck; for the Warriors, winning seems like kismet. They were great and then they were bad and now—will you look at that!—they’re great once again. In its first post-COVID season, the NBA’s new normal looks a lot like its old normal. Real 2015 vibes, indeed.

“These last two months of the playoffs, the last three years, these last 48 hours—every bit of it has been an emotional roller coaster on and off the floor,” Curry said after the game. “And you get goosebumps just thinking about, you know, all those snapshots and episodes that we went through to get back here, individually, collectively. And that’s why I said I think this championship hits different. That’s why I have so many emotions, and still will, just because of what it took to get back here.”

While this Warriors’ championship run is painted as a story of transformation, every scintilla of Golden State’s success was enabled by Curry’s constancy. Yes, their sclerotic supporting cast from 2019 turned over and gave way to a new cast of contributors, but the Warriors reemerged as a powerhouse because of what stayed the same. Namely, everything works because Steph Curry, just as he’s done for years, makes everything work. 

All the adjustments and improvements that helped lift the Warriors out of the NBA’s working class can be traced back to Curry. Even during their listless playoffs-less season last year, Curry’s individual brilliance kept them philosophically coherent, giving the likes of Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins the time and space to adapt to the Warriors’ scheme; it’s hard to imagine Wiggins morphing into an elite glue guy or Jordan Poole doing a solid Steph Curry impression without last season serving as a protracted rehearsal dinner. Curry isn’t a system player; he’s a system, player

If Curry last year provided the Warriors with a nurturing floor, his efforts in the Finals showed just how high he can raise their ceiling. Save for a Game 5 stinker, Curry was at his imperial best against the Celtics, averaging 31.2 points, six rebounds and five assists per game and taking home his first Finals MVP as a result. Pitted against the upper-case Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and a historically dominant Boston defense led by Robert Williams (the actual, lower-case defensive player of the year), Curry made them all look like chumps. Boston hung back in drop coverage against the pick-and-roll, daring Curry to beat them with pull-up threes—so he did. 

This was peak Curry, blending the kinetic cutting that kick-started the Warriors’ dynasty and the on-ball assertiveness that has sustained it; he was simultaneously the best off-screen shooter and the best pull-up shooter in the playoffs. To their credit, Boston mounted an admirable effort to stem Curry’s scoring alluvia. Still, Curry is so deadly that he ensures that any minor success is a qualitative, rather than quantitative one. As Boston discovered, it doesn’t really matter if you contest shots and force Curry to hoist prayers over a seven-footer from a furlong away from the hoop because he’s still going to make them. 

Accordingly, the Warriors won Game 6—and the Larry O’B—by breaking Boston in quotidien, cumulative ways. On a second by second basis, playing the Warriors is exhausting, equal parts three-card monty and boot camp obstacle course. With Curry and Thompson and Poole scampering about, defenders must be able to instinctually communicate and download instructions, toggling assignments between all five players on the fly. It’s tricky enough to do that once, let alone six times on one possession, let alone on 100 possessions during an entire game. To wit, the Warriors’ super power is their ability to compound minor mistakes into game-ending runs—a few minutes of sloppiness is enough to spark a 21-0 Golden State run; a couple of botched assignments and Curry will put you to bed with a title-clinching 13 point fourth quarter.  

Now that Steph Curry has earned his first Finals MVP and secured the last piece of meaningful hardware that’s eluded him, it’s naturally time to reconsider his place in the NBA’s pantheon. At the very least, he’s graduated from some spot in the nebulous top ten discussion and entered the Secret Beef Room of true greatness alongside Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain (conversely, Klay Thompson made room for very public beef of his own). Whereas matters of “legacy” and things of that nature are a distracting sideshow, every Warrior seemed acutely aware of how important this series was to them. It was a matter of revenge against the doubters, but also redemption for both the team’s principles and its principals. 

“There were a lot of tears shed,” said Thompson in a post-game interview. “I knew it was a possibility. But to see it in real time, holy cannoli.”

How sweet it is.  

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The Golden State Warriors Prove Their Toughness, Win Game 5

In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors played badly—they went 9-40 from behind the arc and got doubled up on the offensive glass; Stephen Curry ended the game without making a single three-pointer, snapping a streak of 132 consecutive playoff games (and 233 consecutive combined playoff and regular season games) with at least one triple. For the most part, the Celtics’ defense has befuddled the Warriors, taking away the automatic advantages that jumpstart Golden State’s whirligig attack. And yet, the Warriors are now one win away from their fourth title in eight years, stealing a 104-94 win from the Boston Celtics to take a 3-2 series lead. 

More than anything, this toughness has been the foundation of the Warriors’ dynasty, even if it’s been obscured by their flashy offense and near-untouchable runs with Kevin Durant. In 2015, Golden State steeled themselves against Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers teams that tried to arm-bar them into submission; in 2018 and 2019, they beat the Houston Rockets, who designed their team with the express purpose of gunking up the Warriors’ offense. And now, against the Celtics, the Warriors are once again refusing to be punked by a bigger, more physical team. Just as Robert Pattinson is a pretty-boy actor with surprising artistic depth, the Warriors are a finesse team with a hidden store of grit. 

With their offense largely throttled by Boston’s defense, Golden State ratcheted up their defense, simply deciding to no longer let Boston score. Although Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been able to sustain the Celtics’ attack with their shot-making chutzpah, the Warriors preyed on the duo’s sloppy ball-handling. Golden State tried to confuse Boston in the first four games of the series by sending late help to try to disguise their rotations, but made a conscious effort to clog gaps on the perimeter in Game 5. Every Boston drive thwarted before it could really begin, repelled by waves of prying hands. Visibly frazzled by the Warriors’ new-found aggression, Tatum and Brown combined for nine turnovers and just eight assists. Collectively, the Celtics coughed up the ball 18 times, dropping to 0-7 in the postseason when they turned the ball over more than 16 times. 

Beyond forcing Boston into crushing, momentum-swinging gaffes, Golden State turned nearly every Boston possession into a series of minor indignities. After granting Boston switches without too much protest to start the series, Golden State labored to protect Steph Curry and Jordan Poole more from Tatum and Brown in Game 5. Save for Boston’s scintillating third quarter, the Celtics struggled to target Curry and Poole, wasting precious time in the process; the Celtics only took 12 shots with more than 15 seconds left on the shot clock—for reference,  Golden State generated 28 early looks. 

If being able to consistently create an advantage is the most elemental aspect of being a good offense, the Warriors clamped the Celtics by stemming any potential problem before it could arise. A comprehensive list of things Boston couldn’t do: score in the paint, score in the midrange, score in isolation, score in transition, create shots for each other. A comprehensive list of the things they could do: bomb semi-contested threes and suffer. 

As such, Golden State’s defensive effort was as necessary as it was impressive. While the Warriors offense wasn’t quite as toothless as Boston’s, Curry’s uncharacteristic stinker still required them to recalibrate on the fly. Gone were the heliocentric, Steph Curry spread pick-and-rolls that proved to be such fertile offensive ground in Game 4; in its place, was a more egalitarian approach featuring contributions from the slightly lesser lights like Klay Thompson (21 points, five three-pointers), Draymond Green (11 points, seven rebounds, six assists), Gary Payton II (15 points on 6-8 shooting) and Andrew Wiggins (26 points and 13 rebounds???). 

Accordingly, Game 5 marked the latest chapter in the ongoing Wiggins renaissance. Tasked with slowing Tatum and Brown, he provided pressurized on-ball at the point of attack—on the 47.8 possessions that Wiggins matched-up with Tatum, Boston managed just 29 points as a team. Offensively, he overwhelmed Boston with his athleticism, nailing 12 of his 17 two-point field goal attempts and racking up a team-high 26 points. Wiggins’s Maple Jordan nickname has always been a misnomer—he’s Maple Pippen, an athletic stopper who offers as much offense as he needs to. Despite sharing the court with Brown, Tatum, Curry, Green and Thompson, the former 2014 #1 pick was clearly the best player on the court. Here was a game as surreal and odd as a Sopranos dream sequence—a fish talks, a horse is in the living room, Andrew Wiggins can’t be stopped. 

If the Warriors can close out Boston, they won’t be a particularly convincing champion, but that’s irrelevant. What they lack in raw talent, the Warriors make up for with their resolve. Stick-to-it-ness, spunk, feist, guts, whatever you want to call it: they have it. The Golden State Warriors are one win from a championship because they’re totally unphased by being one win from a championship.

Whereas Boston melted into a puddle of nerves and neuroses in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Warriors were unmoved. Draymond Green rebounded from his Game 4 benching and returned to his destructive ways; Andrew Wiggins shed the sluggishness that harpooned his Minnesota tenure and dominated the biggest game of his career. Steph Curry had the worst postseason game of his career and the Warriors still withstood a second-half comeback from a more athletic and more talented team because, of course, they did; this is just what they do. For the Warriors, success is a (Golden) state of mind. 

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Steph Curry Can Be A Conventional Superstar, Too

Stephen Curry is not like those other stars. He’s not Lebron James, dictating the movement of the other nine players on the court like a traffic cop; he’s not Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, who turned isolation scoring into high-stakes morality plays. In his game, there’s none of the dribble-dribble-dribble burden that James Harden and Luka Doncic carry, nor the rimward aggression that’s made Giannis Antetokounmpo the reigning Finals MVP. Instead, Curry’s signature play is him running around, playing tag with his defender until he finally gets open enough that Draymond Green passes him the ball, which he then almost immediately shoots. 

Whereas other stars usually provide every signal and cue for their team, Curry has never really had to shoulder that same ball-dominating load. Playing alongside Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Green, Curry was long able to follow his bliss, the hardwood version of a trust-fund kid being free to become an artist or a public defender or, uh, a sports blogger rather than joining a money-making, soul-sucking corporate machine.

For the first time since the beginning of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty in 2014/2015, Curry is playing the exact style that he’s long eschewed. While a simple Curry pick-and-roll has always been the Warriors’ ace-in-the-hole, it’s been shelved only for the most important moments—abusing it would be indecorous, if not downright gauche. But piloting a barren roster against a historically great Boston Celtics’ defense that’s daring Curry to beat them on his own, he’s ramped up his pick-and-roll volume to career-high levels. During his virtuosic Game 4, Curry ran 45 pick-and-rolls, after ending just 6.7 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler during the regular season. In doing so, Curry poured in 43 of the most impressive points in NBA history.

The thing that makes Curry such a dangerous pick-and-roll player is that he turns normal defensive schemes into utter nonsense. NBA defenses are calibrated to address a specific list of possible problems, none of which are relevant against Curry. Trying to guard Curry the same way you’d guard DJ Augustin or Chris Paul is about as effective as trying to defeat an earthquake with karate; there’s not much you can do once your entire team is dragged out onto unsteady, shifting ground. 

If most teams focus on limiting Curry at the expense of letting his costars run amok, the Celtics have done the inverse. Accordingly, they’re the first team in recent postseason memory to play drop coverage against Curry and the Warriors, albeit a bastardized version of drop coverage where the big man still ventures way out beyond the three-point line. This is not only a bet on their personnel to hold their own against Curry, but that it’s not humanly possible to win a playoff series with a heavy diet of vertiginous 30-foot pull-up jumpers. It just can’t be, right?

So far, the answer is that it might be. On a macro-level, the Celtics are holding the Warriors’ offense to just 110.5 points per 100 possessions, down from 117.8 points during their first three series. Through four games, Boston has more or less excised once-dangerous guys like Draymond Green and Jordan Poole from the run of play; the Celtics have refused to cede the space behind Curry that the other Warriors need to thrive.

On a micro-level, the Celtics are getting torched by Curry—his 34.3 points per game and 66.3 percent True Shooting have him on pace to claim his first Finals MVP, whether Golden State wins a ring or not. No matter how far out Boston sends its bigs to pick up Curry, they leave him with too much space. By the very nature of playing drop, the big man has to backpedal as Curry approaches, creating a window for Curry to fire.  

Over the last eight years, the Warriors have played unlike any other team in the NBA. Within their own little walled garden around Curry, the Warriors have shut out the headwinds of heliocentrism and spread pick-and-rolls. Under Steve Kerr, Golden State plays a unique, beautiful and inimitable style of basketball because they have Curry and nobody else does. Curry’s mastery of the extraordinary won the Warriors the Western Conference; his comfort with the ordinary has them in position to win the Finals. 

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The Boston Celtics Keep It Simple, Win Game 3

The NBA Finals, like everything else now, is just another culture war. It’s the newly-dynastic Warriors against the 17-bannered Celtics. This is a showdown between the technocratic nouveau riche and the Boston Brahmin, savvy and skill versus size and athleticism, collectivism versus individualism, art versus science.

For the first two games, the Warriors dictated the terms of engagement—the Celtics may have stolen Game 1, but they aped the Warriors’ small-ball, trigger-happy lineups in the process and rode 9 fourth quarter threes to victory. In Game 2, the Warriors held serve because they’re the Warriors, buoyed by the world-building greatness of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. During their 116-100 Game 3 victory, though, the Celtics rediscovered what made them the best team in the NBA, bludgeoning the Warriors by becoming the truest distillation of themselves.

From the game’s opening tip, the Celtics unveiled a streamlined, more economic vision of their offense. Golden State’s defense may thrive on its ability to resist decision fatigue and navigate chaos, but Boston blitzed the Warriors for 33 first quarter points by simplifying their offense to only its most essential components; Boston’s already vanilla menu of sets was pared down even further. Namely, the Celtics trained their crosshairs on Curry, daring him to stop guys he patently isn’t able to stop. After guarding just 18 drives and 22 pick-and-rolls in the first two games combined, Curry guarded 18 drives and 15 pick-and-rolls in Game 3 alone. The formula was simple and repeatable: let Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum pick on Curry and give them the room to unleash the dawg in them. 

Accordingly, both Brown and Tatum had their best game of the series, alternately creating and capitalizing on advantages—Brown paced the team with 27 points, highlighted by a 17 point masterclass in the first quarter; Tatum finally shook loose for 26 points and a game-high nine assists. As a result of the Warriors telegraphing their rudimentary coverages, Brown and Tatum became the playmakers that they’re often maligned for not being, attracting help defense and then spraying the ball to shooters. Even a brutish offensive player like Marcus Smart got some kicks in, hanging 12 of his 24 points on Curry.  

Beyond exposing Curry’s defensive flaws, the Celtics limited Draymond Green’s defensive brilliance. Rather than let Draymond Green freestyle and meander his way to the exact right place to blow up a play, the Celtics prescribed Green to specific, predictable rotations. Instead of being a destructive genius, Green became an ordinary help defender rotating as the low-man or digging from the strongside corner—the two-time Defensive Player of the Year transformed into just another defensive player. Rattled by the weirdly personal “fuck you, Draymond” chants from Brookliners and Newtonites cosplaying as Southies, Green fouled out in the fourth quarter, getting an early start on prepping for his podcast. 

Just as the Celtics succeeded by stripping down their offense, they bottled up the Warriors’ offense by forcing the Warriors’ offense to play a basic, constrained style as well. If most NBA offenses try to collapse defenses from the inside-out, the Warriors stretch their opponents out, the mere prospect of Curry getting provoking the same response as when a poodle gets loose from the dog run. Jordan Poole is the only Warrior with a bag much bigger than a fanny pack, but Curry routinely demands double-teams from the court’s outer rim and allows his teammates to attack hectares of open space all the same.  

As such, the Celtics put together their best defensive performance of the Finals by, uh, letting Curry do whatever he wanted. Despite a splendid game from Curry (31 points on 22 shots), Boston was chilling; Al Horford and Robert Williams hunkered down in drop coverage even as the Warriors ripped off one of their patented third quarter heaters. It worked: the Warriors’ buzzsaw never got going and their 22 assists were their lowest mark of the postseason. Opting to play Curry’s pick-and-rolls straight-up, Boston demonstrated their pain tolerance; it sucks to watch Curry go nuclear against a back-pedaling Al Horford, but letting Curry and Green and Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole run you into oblivion sucks way more. 

Although Boston’s actual game plan wasn’t so different than it was in Game 2, Robert Williams looked healthy for the first time all postseason. Like Walton Goggins or a saxophone in a rock song, Williams makes things better. The one true Defensive Player of the Year, Williams put the screws to Golden State during his 26 minutes. By dint of being huge and able to jump extremely high, Williams added some bite to Boston’s conservative defense; his four blocks were a game-high and he snagged three steals from a skittish Curry in the fourth quarter. 

While Al Horford (or, as Mark Jackson says, Owl Haawfud) is an excellent defensive center in his own right, he lacks a certain fear factor; Curry had no qualms about launching pull-up threes over Horford’s contests. Conversely, Williams is terrifying; his wingspan is nearly eight-feet long! He creates anxiety—open shots are sabotaged by sideways glances, contested shots are swatted. With Williams, drop coverage isn’t so much a concession as it is a threat—just try to shoot over me, he taunts. An elite shot-blocker, Williams cordons off the interior—the Celtics notched twice as many points in the paint as the Warriors (52 to 26) and out-rebounded them by 16 (47 to 31). Unsurprisingly, the Celtics outscored Golden State by 21 points when Williams was on the court.

Through three games, the Finals have carried the sense that the Celtics are in control—they aren’t necessarily the “better” team, but it’s their effort that determines the outcome of each game. Whereas the Warriors precisely combine and recombine, a golden spiral sketched out on a basketball court, the Celtics are variable and raw. Each game, the Warriors offer up a riddle that’s up to the Celtics to find ways to solve. For now, at least, the Celtics seem to have cracked the Warriors’ code because they’re the bigger, stronger, faster, more adaptable team. Simple as that. 

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Draymond Green Can’t Be Stopped

When Draymond Green gets a tech, he’s not going to get a second. No ref—not Tony Brothers or Zach Zarba or even Scott Foster—is going to do shit about it; the juice of tossing Green isn’t worth getting squeezed by a Chase Center full of wannabe LinkedIn influencers.  Whereas other players would tread lightly, Green is going to howl and inveigh and be a jerk with impunity, safe in the knowledge that he’s absolutely above the law. He’s Logan Roy, commandeering a shareholders’ meeting; Tony Soprano, seeing his goomah. So, yeah, he’ll try to pants Jaylen Brown and get in Ime Udoka’s face and flex and preen around because who’s going to stop him? 

“For me, you know, you have to send a message,” Green said after Game 2. “Guys follow me on [the defensive] side of the ball. If I’m not sending a message, who is sending that message?”

In Game 1, Green more or less followed convention, guarding Al Horford and Robert Williams for about 60 percent of the defensive possessions he played. This makes sense—as Green inches towards becoming a full-time podcaster, he’s no longer quick enough to pursue quicker players on the perimeter, but his massive super brain still makes him a devastating help defender. The problem: every Warrior defender got dog-walked by Brown and Jayson Tatum, who repeatedly breached the first line of defense and then swung the ball around the compromised defense for an open 3. 

Despite his characteristically modest stats (nine points on three shots, five rebounds and seven assists), Green dominated Game 2 from a vibes-based perspective. After Boston punked Golden State in the fourth quarter of Game 1 to steal home court advantage, Green took it upon himself to reanimate Golden State’s lagging defense.

Accordingly, Green assumed a larger share of Brown-duty in Game 2 and acquitted himself well; Boston scored just 17 points during Green’s 23 possessions on Brown, compared to 53 points during the 41 possessions Klay Thompson matched-up with Brown in Game 1. While Klay Thompson is firmly in the grim late-stage Obi-Wan Kenobi portion of his career, Green bothered Brown with his savviness and handsiness, rebuffing Brown’s drives and contesting his jumpers. 

Brown may be a superlative athlete and shot-maker, but he dribbles like a kid playing outside at recess after it just rained and the ball is gross and he doesn’t want to get his hands all dirty. As such, Green’s grinding defense prevented Brown from feeling comfortable with the ball. Struggling to rev up to full-speed, Brown couldn’t manifest his physical , ensuring that the matchup would be played on Green’s terms. Although Brown found early success and scored 13 first quarter points, Green hectored the All-Star guard into 1-11 shooting for the rest of the game. 

With Brown taken out of commission by Green, Boston’s offense became uncomfortably unimodal. Even at its best, Boston’s offensive approach can be boiled down to give the ball to one of the two really good guys and hope they score. In this sense, when one of their two really good guys has no hope to score—yikes. Beyond just Brown riding the struggle bus, Boston couldn’t conjure up catch-and-shoot opportunities—Game 1 hero Al Horford scored two points on 1-4 shooting. During the Warriors’ apocalyptic third quarter run, the Boston offense shriveled up entirely and mustered just 14 points. 

In this sense, Game 2 was proof that the Warriors are as much Green’s team as they are Steph Curry’s. He gives them an imperial dickishness that can only be formed by years of continued dominance—over the last eight seasons, Golden State has won 21 of the last 22 playoff series when Curry, Green and Thompson are all healthy. It’s Draymond Green’s Draymond Green-ness that creates the space for Curry to shake free, that engenders the confidence for Jordan Poole to pull-up from 30 feet, that produces the energy for Kevon Looney and Gary Payton II to tussle with more-heralded Celtics.

Playing against a younger, bigger, and, frankly, better team, Green fueled the Warriors to a blow-out win through sheer force of will. When he loses Game One, everyone knows Draymond Green isn’t going down 0-2—he’ll orchestrate the Warriors’ attack and put the Celtics’ offense in a headlock and make himself unmissable. Who’s going to stop him? 

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Can Jayson Tatum Live Up to the Hype in the NBA Finals?

Jayson Tatum is the next, great NBA superstar—or so we’re told. At just 24 years old, he’s been the breakout player of these playoffs, leading the Boston Celtics to the Finals and grabbing the inaugural Eastern Conference Finals MVP along the way. His stats are sparkling (26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game) and his tough shot-making gives him a sense of unguardable inevitability. A studied follower of the Mamba Mentality, Tatum has recreated his mentor’s graceful midrange game—and also his knack for a certain kind of cringey, performative grindset. Whereas new-age stars like Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo are both future Hall of Famers in unprecedented ways, Tatum is an All-Star straight out of central casting. He went to Duke and plays for the Celtics and scores lots of points. He can sling cold cults like a champ. There’s a certain tautology to it all: Tatum is a star because everyone keeps saying he’s a star.

Even if Tatum is certainly a great player, he also hasn’t been the undisputed top dog in any of Boston’s playoff series this year. Against the Nets, Tatum swept Kevin Durant, but Durant had to contend with Boston’s league-leading defense and Tatum got to feast on Bruce Brown. In the second round, Tatum was soundly outdueled by Giannis Antetokounmpo, a sobering reminder of the gap between Tatum and the NBA’s absolute elite. Only the staunchest Tatum-heads would argue that Tatum played better than Jimmy Butler after Butler and an undermanned Heat team nearly pipped the Celtics for a Finals berth. 

A cynic could say that the Boston Media Mafia has manufactured consent around their favorite son. Ever since Tatum boomed Lebron James in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, the media apparatchik has thrown its full weight behind Tatum; Bill Simmons and his cartel of influential, trend-setting media members with New England ties have taken up Tatum as their cause celebre and elevated his standing in the general basketball discourse. To his credit, Tatum has validated a lot of the media’s shamrock-tinted gaslighting—he truly is among the best two dozen basketball players alive. And yet, when a Celtic who was patently not the most valuable player in the Eastern Conference Finals saunters across the stage to collect the freshly minted Larry Bird and Bob Cousy trophies, it’s hard to not grow suspicious of how and why it happened. 

In this sense, there’s a growing rupture between the perception that Tatum is in the midst of an all-time great postseason run and the reality that he’s merely having a very good one. Notably, Tatum is a lackluster playmaker for a player this lauded and prolific—amongst the 64 players who Basketball Index classifies as either a “shot creator” or “primary ball-handler,” Tatum ranks 50th in passing creation volume (their proprietary metric for evaluating the true impact of a player’s passing). 

While Tatum has pumped up his assist totals in the playoffs to nearly six per game, his playmaking ceiling is capped by his inability to stress multiple layers of a defense. Despite his size and athleticism, the 6’8 Tatum is a begrudging interior presence, scoring only 6.9 points on his 13.9 drives per game in the ‘yoffs, figures that lag behind gimmicky guards like Jordan Clarkson and centers like Karl-Anthony Towns. Despite his marionette-ish slipperiness with the ball, Tatum’s handle is more flashy than functional at this point; hounded by Miami’s handsy defenders, he barfed up nearly five turnovers a game.

As such, his reliance on his jumper allows Tatum to thrive against nearly every imaginable defensive coverage, but it leaves the Celtics vulnerable to spells of point-less grossness if Tatum is running cold; he has an icy 51.4 percent True Shooting in Boston’s 31 losses, compared to a rosier 61.3 percent True Shooting mark in their 51 wins. Tatum’s greatest asset as a scorer (his gobsmacking shot-making) feeds into his main offensive deficiency—when you can routinely drain impossible shots yourself, there’s no incentive to fuss for easier ones for your teammates. At a certain point for Tatum and the Celtics, being a bucket becomes a problem.

Although these Finals don’t represent some legacy-defining moment for the 24 year-old Tatum, they will provide some much-needed present clarity—it’s not that Boston’s boy-emperor has no clothes, but it’s unknown if he’s dressed in stylish gorpcore.

If Tatum is truly the generational scorer that a city full of lesser Wahlberg siblings believes him to be, he should have no problem vivisecting Golden State’s switching defense. His fellow All-NBA First-Teamer Luka Doncic just hung 32 points, nine rebounds and 6 assists per game on the Warriors, so surely Tatum can do the same, right? By taking home the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy to pair with his Larry Bird and Bob Cousy ones, Tatum could once and for all prove he’s not a creation of Boston-obsessed basket-bloggers. For Boston to capture the title, Tatum needs to prove his lovers correct.

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Ahead of Game Five, Are the Miami Heat Out of Moves?

As far as high-level playoff basketball goes, the Miami Heat-Boston Celtics Eastern Conference Finals hasn’t been especially watchable. Through four games, there hasn’t been a single minute of overlap where both teams have simultaneously played well; these are good basketball teams that seem physically incapable of stringing together extended periods of good basketball.

Despite the absence of traditionally fun things like points and people succeeding at their jobs, each game has featured a single stretch of lucidity where a team Moon Knight-ish-ly snaps out of their gormlessness and remembers what ostensibly made them contenders in the first place. Games One and Three featured torrid Miami runs that ripped open 20 point leads; the Celtics iced Games Two and Four pretty much by the first media timeout. The problem for the short–handed Miami Heat is that their 102-82 shellacking in Game Four may have shown that their institutional muscle memory has atrophied. 

While such doomerism feels extreme in a series that’s still knotted at two games apop, Miami’s troubles are more qualitative than quantitative. Namely, their offense has gone to crud—Jimmy Butler has a gimpy knee, Kyle Lowry’s hamstring has the structural soundness of a Gildan tee, Tyler Herro missed Game Four with a strained groin that could keep him out for weeks. Beyond Miami’s ever-growing sick bay, Boston’s own injury situation has improved now that Robert Williams (the actual Defensive Player of the Year) is back in the lineup. After missing Game Three, Williams changed the tenor and shape of the Celtics defense in Game Four by allowing Boston to play either mega-big lineups with a Williams-Al Horford pivot or switchy, smaller units with Williams as the lone big. 

As such, Miami’s offense faces a contracting menu of the possible—after all, you don’t score only 82 points in an entire game when you have an abundance of good options. Even at full-strength, their attack was merely above-average rather than elite, with their 114.2 offensive rating ranking 11th in the NBA during the regular season. For the playoffs, Miami’s offensive rating has stayed fairly productive overall(113.2 points per 100 possessions), but their efficiency in the halfcourt has cratered: in their 15 postseason games, their 92.8 offensive rating in the halfcourt is down nearly five points from their regular season mark. Their 90.9 halfcourt offensive rating against the Celtics is somehow even worse. Every bucket feels like a novelty.  

Whereas Boston has the stabilizing luxury of spamming Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown isolations and pick-and-rolls, Miami’s offense is a fragile, more delicate contraption. Like dialectic or egg-and-spoon races, the Heat rely on an orienting system of weights and counterweights to succeed.

Accordingly, the Heat conjure points by voltroning together the skillsets of their roster. Tyler Herro is a slick off-the-dribble scorer but not a nuclear athlete, so he makes for a nice pairing with Bam Adebayo, a frighteningly strong and fast dribble-handoff hub with a piddly bag of his own. Similarly, PJ Tucker is really only useful when he’s standing still in one of exactly two spots on the court, which, in turn, offers spacing for Jimmy Butler to get busy in the mid-post. Compared to a team like the Warriors that runs a specific offense out of ideological purity, the Heat are complicated by necessity—if they didn’t do all this stuff, they’d simply not score points. 

But with their entire backcourt in varying degrees of disrepair, the Heat are liable to completely unravel. Since Butler isn’t able to muster his usual level of burst, the Heat need to rely on their secondary (and tertiary) offensive weapons like Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry to pick up the slack. But since Herro is out and Kyle Lowry is limited, Miami doesn’t have the pull-up shooting to coax Boston out of their paint-sealing drop pick-and-roll coverages. But since Boston’s bigs can chill in the paint, Adebayo is vulnerable to barf up clunkers against Williams like he did in games two and four. And since none of Butler, Herro, Lowry, or Adebayo can reliably do good stuff at the moment, the Eastern Conference Finals have featured a truly grim helping of Max Strus and Victor Oladipo Time. 

None of these individual ails would normally be enough to doom the Miami Heat to basketball hell; the cumulative attrition most likely will. The series is probably lost—all for want of a nail. 

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Sports

Jimmy Butler Is Too Much for the Boston Celtics

Jimmy Butler traffics in excess. No one person needs a 6000-pound, boombox fish tank; there’s no earthly reason to show up to work seven hours early. Even more than Patrick Beverley or Dillon Brooks or Trae Young, Butler is the league’s primo shit-stirrer, an indomitable jerk who has no compunctions about masking his jerkiness. “Tobias Harris over me!?” he howled into the ether after the Heat thoroughly crunched the Sixers into a fresh wave of existential crises. “You can’t win without me,” he barked at his, uh, teammates and coaches in Minnesota. He’s too much, too much of the time—and now it’s the Boston Celtics’ turn to reckon with it. 

Against Boston, Miami reaffirmed their status as the NBA’s resident grinch; they don’t so much beat teams as exsanguinate them, draining the life-force out of their opponent and leaving only a grumpy carcas. After getting shelled by Jayson Tatum in the first half, Butler and the Heat ripped off a torrid 39-14 third quarter to seal a 118-109 series-opening win. During the third quarter alone, Butler contributed 17 points (on five shots) and three steals as part of the rabid Miami defensive effort that provoked six turnovers from Tatum. Overall, Butler chipped in 41 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals. He was the best player on the court. For the game’s final 24 minutes, he was conceivably the best player in the world. 

This is simply what Jimmy Butler does—in basketball talking-head parlance, he “controls the game.” More than his sturdy 6’8 frame or productive psychopathy, Butler’s superpower is his poise, his galvanizing clarity of purpose. Possessing an uncanny ability to function completely on his own terms, he doesn’t just bend the flow of his game to his will; he manifests his own vision for how the game should—and will—be played. He plays with a drummer’s understanding of tempo, setting the rhythm and cadence for the other nine players on the court. Sensing that the Heat needed a jolt after halftime, Butler stalked passing lanes and hunted for early offense in the third quarter; nursing a lead in the fourth, he iced the game by hunting matchups and getting buckets in isolation. 

On a Miami roster that’s broadly prioritized an institutional over hyperbolic individual skill, Butler at once transcends and fits within “Heat Culture.” Whereas his teammates are largely specialists —PJ Tucker is a chesty stopper, Tyler Herro is a zippy off-the-dribble shooter—Butler is the load-bearing figure in Miami’s offense, pacing them in both scoring and assists.  

While Butler won’t rummage through a Never-Full and pull out a complicated dribble combo, he gets sturdy. In Game One, Butler bullied his way to 18 free throws, largely because no Celtic was strong enough to withstand his drives without fouling. Whereas other elite offensive hubs have a kind of weightless ease to their game, Butler boasts a tremendous physical gravity, inviting contact which he can then power through. Nearly everything is off two feet; he’s never off-balance or out of sorts. Just watch him plow through Robert Williams’ chest with a jump-stop for a dunk or shed Jaylen Brown with a forceful last step for evidence. 

In these playoffs, Butler has leveled up into a nearly 30 point per game scorer by leaning on his strengths, both figuratively and literally.  For the postseason, he’s averaged 15.0 drives per game and scored 9.4 points per game from those forays, compared to 13.4 drives and 7.6 points during the regular season. He’s upped both his volume (6.7 possessions versus 4.3 in the regular season) and efficiency (1.26 points per possession vs .92) as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Additionally, he’s even become a confident shooter, taking 4.2 threes per game after sandbagging through the regular season. 

As such, Butler is not dissimilar to Lebron James or Luka Doncic in function, if not form.  He’s a superstar, despite his general scruffy vibe. Most of the pre-series chatter was oriented around Jayson Tatum’s star-turn and place in the league, but that discussion is probably missing the real point. Jimmy Butler is the face—no, Big Face—of the NBA playoffs. 

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Sports Strength

How Robert Williams Saved the Boston Celtics’ Season

For the first three months of the season, the vibes in Boston were decidedly off. Through 36 games, the Celtics lurched to a 17-19 record. Their offense was stale and bad, non-existent beyond Jayson Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s solipsistic scoring. Their defense was similarly middling, felled by a dearth of players who could thrive within the bounds of conventional NBA defense. Basic rotations confounded them: help defenders were too slow or small or apathetic to bother rolling bigs; off-ball switches proved to be unsolvable riddles; closeouts just, like, didn’t happen. Despite the presence of a fearsome shot blocker in Robert Williams, they couldn’t establish a true sense of identity.

Since January 1st, though, the Celtics have played better defense than just about anybody ever. Winners of 16 of their last 22 games, the Celtics have surrendered just 102.9 points per game during that stretch. The key? They’ve let Williams get weird. Whereas Williams previously functioned as a fairly mundane big, anchored in conservative drop, he’s now used as an all-terrain detonator. Paradoxically, they’ve dramatically improved their rim protection by shunting WIlliams, their best rim protector, out towards the perimeter. Since the new year, the Celtics have allowed opponents to make just 63.5 percent of their shots at the rim, compared to 67.1 percent prior. 

In basketball parlance, the weakside defender closest to the basket is known as the “low man” or “MIG” (Most Important Guy); it’s their job to serve as the first line of help defense, stepping up to challenge shots at the rim while also remaining mindful of their original assignment (oftentimes a shooter in the corner). The low man is the unseen ligamenture that determines whether a defense coheres or collapses. 

Accordingly, the Celtics have redesigned their defense so that Williams can occupy permanent low man-dom, meaning that he’s often tasked with guarding shooters in the corner rather than tussling opposing big men. In this new capacity, Williams has transformed from the Celtics’ lower-case most important guy into their upper-case Most Important Guy, contesting more shots than a center traditionally would be able to. Shots that were once easy layups over too-small grunts like Romeo Langford are now engulfed by Williams

As the low man, Williams declares dominion over an entire side of the court. Not only can Williams block shots at the rim, he retreats back out to the perimeter to contest jump shots—Williams contests 4.25 threes per game (putting him in the 80th percentile per BBall Index) and allows just 0.82 points per spot-up, the lowest mark of any Celtic who has defended more than 100 of those situations. 

Beyond simply being asked to stand in a different place sometimes, Williams is increasingly trusted to switch onto dangerous scorers and ball-handlers. Although Williams lacks the footspeed to hang with guards full-time, he presents scorers with one major complication: it’s   basically impossible to get a clean shot over him because he can jump super high and his 7 ‘5 wingspan blots out the horizon. 

Even if the Celtics aren’t the first team to deploy a jumbo-sized low man (Cleveland does so with Evan Mobley and Milwaukee does so with Giannis Antetokounmpo), they’re unique in that their success feels somewhat replicable. Their stinginess isn’t born from any kind of one-of-one superfracted mega-talent; rather, it’s the result of skilled personnel used wisely. While Mobley and Antetokounmpo are athletic mutants, Williams is awesome in a more familiar way—it’s easy to imagine Mitchell Robinson or Daniel Gafford or Mo Bamba or Jalen Duren occupying this same role. 

In this sense, Boston’s scheme is quietly radical. With Williams untethered from the defensive responsibilities of a nominal center, the Celtics are at the forefront of the new defensive vanguard burbling in response to the spread pick-and-roll that defines modern offense. The romantic idea of the lionhearted, stalwart defensive stopper still persists, but it’s no longer an accurate representation of how basketball is played. Defense is a five-man exercise in crisis management; any one-on-one staredown is merely a prelude to the following series of rotations. 

By putting Williams away from the initial play, the Celtics ensure that he’s in position to disrupt the offense’s all-important second and third actions. This is the kind of quasi-zone that defenses have been trending towards over the last few years—Williams doesn’t so much guard a man as he patrols a space. He’s a universal principle that’s been weaponized into singular production.

The Celtics are introducing the sport’s future and still dominating its present. For years, people have talked about positionless basketball as a kind of metonymy for some Cruyffian vision of Total Basketball in which five interchangeable 6’7 super-humans fly around the court in perfect synchronicity. Instead, it’s simply come to mean that players are no longer bounded by geography or hierarchy—there’s still tremendous utility in having a center or a point guard or whatever, as long as they have the fluidity to thrive within a variety of contexts. Just as Viagra outgrew its original usage as a blood pressure medication, Williams symbolizes a reimagination of where rim protection comes from and how it’s conceived. The only rule is that it has to work. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From December 13th-19th

While the NBA’s latest week in action got disrupted because of rising COVID cases, the on-court action managed to stand out in the end. Between history being made for the game’s greatest shooter and a team no one expected becoming the hottest across the league, the stakes continue to rise as Christmas approaches. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

Steph makes history in Steph-like fashion

On Tuesday night, all eyes were on Stephen Curry as he was two made three-pointers away from becoming the NBA’s all-time leader in that category. And besides Madison Square Garden being the perfect place for the long-time Golden State Warrior to make history, the way he did it was genuinely fitting.

While the Warriors were trailing the New York Knicks, 10-9, Curry ran to his spot on the right-wing, and splashed a three within a matter of seconds—a sequence we’ve seen thousands of times throughout his illustrated career—and made The Garden erupt with loud cheers.

The Cavs (yes, the Cavs!) might be the hottest team in the league

Even during an 82-game regular season, there are certain developments you didn’t expect to witness. If you were to ask anybody before this season about the Cleveland Cavaliers, their answers would have likely involved them being near the top of the NBA Draft Lottery. But the Cavaliers holding the league’s active longest-winning steak? And being the third seed in the Eastern Conference? No way.

The 19-12 Cavaliers are proving to be viable playoff contenders who could make much noise next spring. Their combination of a dynamic youth movement and impactful play by their veterans will cause further speculation of what’s next for the Central Division competitor.

Various teams are middle of the pack and can’t get out

Through the league’s first 30 games of every season, we witness teams adjust to sudden changes, discover their identity, and experience the ups and downs of life on in the middle. But when that second part of the season begins and specific trends haven’t changed, it leads to questions about whether or not a team actually has the potential to improve.

Several teams, including playoff contenders such as the Celtics, Hawks, and Trail Blazers, are mired in a vast pack of average teams across the league and are likely to go through the rest of this season as a fringe-playoff contender or worse, a low-end Draft Lottery participant.

The league battles postponements of games and troubling test results

Despite daily news of various players entering the league’s health and safety protocols becoming standard, so is the reality of games getting postponed. Since the start of this past weekend, the NBA has postponed five games, and it’s not a reach to believe only more games will receive the same fate.

With a growing number of players entering protocols and missing extensive action and teams struggling to field a roster of enough players, questions have come to rise about the NBA either changing its testing methods or ultimately pausing the season in the coming weeks.