October 3, 2022

The Golden State Warriors are one victory away from a championship. In a way, their Game 5 win was precisely the opposite of their Game 4 victory — after Stephen Curry lit up TD Garden for 43 points on 14-for-26 shooting on Friday, he scored just 16 points on 7-for-22 shooting at Chase Center in their 104-94 victory on Monday. In another way, it was extremely similar — the Warriors won by 10 points, shut down the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter and overcame an inefficient offensive performance. 

Here are nine plays that explain Game 5: 

1. Hey man, nice start

In the first four games of the NBA Finals, Golden State progressively tilted its attack toward Curry running high pick-and-rolls. It started Game 5, however, with classic Warriors movement. Curry hands the ball off to Otto Porter Jr., then cuts along the baseline, with Al Horford face guarding him. When Porter slips a screen, there’s no rim protection, as Robert Williams III is guarding the ball and Horford is preoccupied with Curry:

The Celtics have done a fantastic job defending Golden State’s off-ball actions, but that doesn’t mean coach Steve Kerr is going to default to static pick-and-rolls. The Warriors want to make Boston deal with multiple actions because every action requires defenders to think and communicate.

The first possession of the game provided a tidy microcosm of the battle taking place whenever Golden State has the ball. Defending the Warriors is exhausting, and they believe that, if they keep running their stuff, the opponent will eventually wear down. Scoring against the Celtics is exhausting, and they believe that, if they are locked in and limit their mistakes, the opponent will eventually wear down. Here, Golden State beat the switch with a slip, but Draymond Green had to place his pass perfectly and Porter had to hit the layup over Jayson Tatum’s outstretched arms. 

This bucket was the beginning of a 14-4 Warriors run in which Curry accounted for only two points. 

2. Simple game

In Boston’s series-opening win, Tatum had 13 assists and Horford made six 3s. In Game 3, the Celtics’ other win, Tatum had nine assists and they effectively targeted Curry. This late-second-quarter possession, which ended with a Horford kickout 3 from Tatum, illustrates what has worked for Boston offensively in this series:

Tatum got into the paint with good spacing around him, collapsed the defense, made Andre Iguodala think he was passing to Jaylen Brown in the corner and hit Horford for an open 3. Boston’s problem is that this didn’t happen nearly enough. This was only the Celtics’ second 3-pointer of the game — they missed their first 12 — and Tatum finished with four assists. It is not a coincidence that his other assists all came in the third quarter, the one that they dominated. 

“When we’re at our best, it’s simple ball movement,” Boston coach Ime Udoka said. “I think the third quarter showed that. The drive and kick was beautiful, was working, getting guys wide-open shots.” 

3. Just like they drew it up

Here’s a profoundly strange sequence: After a double-team on Tatum and a steal, Curry declines to take a pull-up 3 in transition, perhaps spooked by Robert Williams III behind him. He gives the ball up to Green, who fires a lefty pass to Klay Thompson on the opposite side. Thompson attacks Horford’s close-out, then goes into an outrageous, one-legged runner over Williams from, oh, 17 feet or so? Look at Green’s reaction when this goes in:

Thompson finished with 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting, including 5-for-11 from deep. This is an objectively ridiculous shot.to take in any NBA game, let alone Game 5 of the NBA Finals, but it’s Thompson, so it wasn’t shocking when it went in.

Why did I include this? Because the Warriors had nine steals to Boston’s two, and five of those Golden State steals led directly to buckets on the other end. (The other four: Three missed pull-ups from Curry and a take foul.) We’ve seen this before.

4. Surprise!

The Celtics didn’t completely change how they defended Curry, but they did selectively get more aggressive. Here, they throw a surprise double-team at him, but Curry calmly gets Tatum out of his way, keeps probing and finds Gary Payton II for a layup with a crisp, lefty pass:

This is my favorite of Curry’s eight assists, and it demonstrates why the Celtics have been reluctant to put two on the ball against him. He missed all nine of his 3-pointers, but still left his imprint on the game. 

“It’s just using that aggression against them,” Curry said. “Getting into the paint. The fact, you know, I don’t know if I have more than like five assists the first four games, and that total goes up, and we still left a lot out there because we have different ways to attack you, even if it’s not me just trying to hunt shots. And using gravity, using ball movement, all that type of stuff to do normal Warriors basketball. It’s just a feel thing. And obviously never losing your aggressiveness even though you’re not making shots like you normally do.

5. That’s a fast break

After falling behind by five, the Warriors made a series of transition plays late in the third quarter and early in the fourth to snatch momentum back. You likely remember Jordan Poole’s banked-in, buzzer-beating 3, but here’s another one that will hurt to watch in film, starring Green and Payton at full speed: 

This is terrible transition defense by Boston, and it’s emblematic of Golden State’s mindset. This was not a Curry game, so it needed to scrounge up points however it could. In this case, that means Green pushing the pace when the Warriors don’t have the numbers and sending a bounce pass exactly where it needed to go to turn a 2-on-3 break into two points — at exactly the right time. 

“The response to Boston’s run to me was the key to the game,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said after the win. 

Green has been talking about playing with “force” at virtually every press conference during the Finals. That does not simply mean playing physical defense; it means making aggressive plays like this, conjuring high-percentage scoring opportunities out of thin air against a defense that doesn’t allow many of them. 

6. Tough look

With nine minutes to go and the Warriors on a 13-0 run, Marcus Smart ran a dribble-handoff with Brown way outside the 3-point line. It was so high that Green, who was guarding Smart, simply went under the screen. Rather than attempting to make Poole defend a second action, Brown sized up Green one-on-one. He can make this pull-up 3, but it’s not an easy one: 

I get that Green gave Brown some space, but, down by 11 points, with 14 on the shot clock, I don’t love this shot. The Celtics had little margin for error at this point, so it should have been looking for more than one-action, one-isolation possessions, unless the guy defending that isolation is a weak defender. After hearing Boston lament its “stagnant” late-game offense in the previous game, this was a tough look. 

Udoka suggested that fatigue might have affected the team’s decision-making down the stretch. 

7. Wiggins saves the day

I thought this was a terrible decision by Andrew Wiggins before the shot went in: 

Curry looks at Wiggins after the pass, first pointing at Thompson and then calling for the ball himself. Wiggins has other ideas, taking two dribbles and going into a righty hook of sorts against Horford. It felt too ambitious to me, but maybe it shouldn’t have — he had already made numerous contested shots off the bounce, and he’d make a nearly identical one a couple of minutes later against Williams.  

Wiggins finished with 26 points on 12-for-23 shooting, plus 13 rebounds. He got his points in all sorts of ways, not just by crashing the glass, running the floor and hitting spot-up 3s. (In fact, he missed all six of his 3-point attempts.) When Curry was cold and the team needed him to bail out a possession, he obliged. What a series he is having. 

“He’s definitely confident,” Kerr said. “He’s definitely enjoying the playoffs. He loves the challenge. He loves the competition. And he’s found such a crucial role on our team, and I think that empowers him. He knows how much we need him, so he’s been fantastic.”

8. GPII frees Steph

Up by 10 with less than five minutes on the clock, Golden State ran its trusty post splits —  Payton passes to Green from the perimeter, then sets a screen for Curry, only this time Curry didn’t use it, instead cutting into the paint, where Green found him for a floater: 

It’s a great read by Curry with Smart top-locking him, and it’s another perfect pass from Green. But it’s also an example of the Warriors getting used to their opponent — they know that Williams is ignoring Payton, which makes him a dangerous screener. And Curry knows that Williams is anticipating that he’ll come off the screen on the left side, so the rim protector is just a step or two too far away to get to the shot. 

9. Not the type of ‘force’ you want

Here’s Tatum driving left against Wiggins, picking up his dribble and missing a turnaround jumper over Green:

No passing, no screening, no nothing. The Warriors are too good defensively for this approach. Maybe it doesn’t matter because there’s little chance that Boston was about to erase a 12-point lead anyway. But it felt desperate, particularly in contrast to how Golden State was playing offensively. 

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