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.