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The Golden Breakdown: How the Warriors beat the Celtics with clutch defensive play

A marquee matchup against a potential Finals opponent resulted in a victory for the Warriors, who stepped up their defensive intensity when it mattered.

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NBA: Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

There is no other team that has earned the utmost respect of the Golden State Warriors as much as the Boston Celtics — and there is no other player in the league that is more respected among the Warriors players as much as Kyrie Irving.

Through simply watching Irving play, one can understand why the defending champions hold him in high regard. His playground style of basketball, complete with handles that project the illusion of his hands acting as magnets as well as his seemingly superhuman ability to finish at the rim, is pure basketball artistry.

Stephen Curry most certainly respects Irving as a fellow elite point guard. He has gotten plenty of experience going up against Irving, and he certainly knows the feeling of being burned by one of Irving’s clutch shots all too well, being the victim of Irving’s 2016 Finals shot that catapulted the Cleveland Cavaliers to a title.

Kevin Durant respects Irving as a fellow disciple of the game. Both are pure basketball junkies who derive maximum pleasure from just playing as much as they can. Save for the discrepancy in height, both are highly similar in the sense that they are two of the deadliest one-on-one scorers in the game today.

The Warriors respect the Celtics because of their similar style of play: an equal opportunity, egalitarian system predicated on moving the ball around and encouraging player mobility to find the best and most efficient shot possible. Defensively, the Celtics are filled with lengthy players who have a hard-nosed approach on that end of the floor — another aspect that the Warriors can relate to.

“I think they’re the most talented team in the East,” Draymond Green said to The Athletic’s Anthony Slater. “Still trying to figure out rotations and shots and all the things it takes to figure out when you have a great team. People think you just put great players together and it works. It don’t. They’re still figuring it out, but I don’t doubt that they will.”

And figuring it out, the Celtics still are. Tagged as preseason favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference as the top seed, they are currently 5th in the standings after stumbling out of the early season gate. But they are slowly finding their footing, led by Irving’s excellent stretch of games that have signaled his evolution as an all-around player.

Armed with that respect for both the player and the team, the Warriors approached this marquee game with a near playoff-like mindset. Offensively, the big scoring three of Curry, Durant, and Klay Thompson combined for 78 points, while Draymond Green added 8 assists while committing just three turnovers.

But it was the Warriors’ defense that took center stage down the crucial stretch of the game. Despite the Warriors ranking 15th in the league in defensive rating, they possess the luxury of choice — that is, they can choose to turn the switch on whenever they want defensively, and that usually spells doom for the opposing team.

Let’s take a look at the crucial defensive sequences for the Warriors that led to their victory.

The last five minutes of the third quarter

Klay Thompson has always been one of the best foils against Irving. Thompson’s combination of length, size, and excellent defensive fundamentals has given Irving fits in the past, despite the fact that Irving still finds ways to occasionally score against the Splash Brother’s suffocating defense (the game-winning shot during Christmas Day 2016 is a testament to that).

In this sequence, Irving finds himself matched up against Thompson. Thompson stays close to Irving and does not give him a single inch of space. Once Irving starts his approach to the rim, Thompson shuffles his feet, and his contest — coupled with Andre Iguodala’s help from behind — forces the miss. Simply an excellent display of defensive fundamentals from Thompson.

With Thompson being taken out of the game for rest, Durant takes a turn on Irving. Durant’s length certainly gives Irving more to think about in terms of pulling up for a jump shot, which forces him to run a pick-and-pop with Al Horford. Horford slips the screen, but Kevon Looney’s mobility allows him to close out quickly on Horford. The ball is passed to Marcus Smart down low, whose turnaround fadeaway jumper misses through an excellent contest by Alfonzo McKinnie. This stop eventually leads to a Looney tip-in on the other end.

In this sequence, Curry tries his luck against Irving after Smart’s screen forces a switch. Smart relocates to the left corner and receives the pass from Irving. He has a wide open look at the basket — but he’s open for a reason; despite shooting a career-high 36.6 percent from three-point range this season, Smart is a career 30.4 percent shooter from three. Durant decides to take his chances based on the percentages, and it turns out to be a wise choice.

Still scoreless for nearly three minutes, and with Irving sitting on the bench, the Celtics go to Jayson Tatum, hoping that he can carry the Celtics’ bench squad that is bereft of offensive options. Tatum gets switched onto Looney, an able perimeter defender. Instead of using his quickness and handle, Tatum goes up for an ill-advised pull-up jumper that Looney contests.

Watch this defensive sequence from the Warriors and marvel at their ability to close down driving lanes while quickly rotating and closing out on perimeter shooters. The Celtics’ multiple attempts at driving and kicking are shut down due to the mobility of the Warriors’ defenders. Quickly zipping around the ball to look for an open shot is the right way to play offense, but that is countered by a defense that equally zips around their bodies and never stops moving.

The Celtics let Gordon Hayward have a turn at trying to score. Hayward gets the switch on Looney; while he successfully gets Looney up in the air with a fake, the big man slightly contorts his body to avoid contact with Hayward, whose awkward shot doesn’t fall in.

Once again, Hayward tries his luck against Looney — but Looney shows why the Warriors place a lot of value in him. He smothers the drive and rips the ball away from Hayward’s hands.

Green finally gets his turn on Tatum, and a good contest by Green forces the miss, preventing the Celtics from entering the fourth quarter with a smaller deficit.

The Warriors’ defense shifted into overdrive during the last five minutes of the third quarter, as evidenced by the Celtics scoring only three points during that time span.

Clutch defense in the fourth quarter

With the Celtics regaining a two-point lead, they go back to running pick-and-pops with Irving and Horford. It’s clear in this situation that the Celtics are trying to get DeMarcus Cousins involved in these pick actions, mainly due to his lack of mobility. In this instance, Cousins does a good job of closing out and contesting Horford’s three, while running ahead of Horford in transition and catching the outlet pass that results in two free throws for the big man.

Cousins gets tested again in the the pick-and-roll. Irving gets a screen and drives inside, with Shaun Livingston trailing behind him. Irving has proven that tight spaces and tall towers generally do not bother him; one way or another, he will find a way to put the ball in the bucket. But in this instance, he forces an attempt while being severely smothered. Cousins does a good job of staying with Irving and blocking his layup.

Down three with approximately five and a half minutes to go, the Celtics again look to Irving and Horford to link up and provide some much needed scoring. Meanwhile, Cousins is actively preventing Horford from gaining an advantageous position inside; as a result, Irving — who perhaps expected Horford to cut or dive — passes the ball straight into the hands of Cousins. This leads into a Livingston jumper on the other end that stretches the lead to five.

Back-to-back stops by the Warriors prevent Irving and Horford from establishing an offensive rhythm. The Celtics run another pick-and-roll with Irving and Horford. Irving breaks free from Livingston and prepares to drive past Cousins, but a timely poke knocks the ball away from him. A deep three by Curry doesn’t go in, and Irving prepares to push the pace on the other end, but Livingston moves his feet and stops Irving in his tracks. Horford gets the ball, and his three is contested well by Livingston. Two offensive possessions by the Celtics result in two defensive victories for the Warriors.

A great player cannot be completely put in shackles, as evidenced by Irving’s sudden explosion of 8 points that results in the Celtics tying the game up. Look at this incredible sequence from Irving against one of the premier wing defenders in the league in Iguodala. Using his exquisite handle, he gets past Iguodala, and despite the recovery and good contest, Irving still manages to get the ball up and in.

But Irving isn’t as effective in this possession. Amid pressure from Green, his handles get the best of him and he loses the ball. On the other end, the Celtics’ transition defense loses track of Thompson, who receives the ball from Iguodala and buries the wide open three that gives the Warriors a three-point lead.

Watch Green in this sequence. He guards Horford on the perimeter, while Irving is being held in check by Thompson, whose overplay allows Irving to cut inside. Horford passes him the ball — but Green snuffs out the pass and takes it away, preventing what could have been an easy layup for Irving.

Smart eventually hits a three over the outstretched arms of Green, while Thompson gets fouled and hits two free throws to give the Warriors a precarious two-point lead. After a timeout, Irving handles the ball and gets a screen from Smart, with the aim of forcing a switch onto Curry.

However, the Warriors counter this by having Curry and Thompson blitz Irving, which almost forces a backcourt violation. Irving is forced to pass to Smart, who misses the three.

After Durant commits a boneheaded turnover, the Celtics go to Irving in isolation against Thompson. As he has done so many times before, Thompson becomes the bane of Irving’s existence, using his size, length, and feet to give Irving a difficult time. Irving is so bothered by Thompson’s defense that his shot doesn’t even catch a single piece of the rim.

And to seal the deal for the Warriors, Green gets fouled and misses both of his free throws, but the ball bounces toward him, allowing the Warriors to retake possession and Curry to get fouled. His two free throws seal the deal for the Warriors, who come away with their 10th consecutive victory.


The Warriors displayed their respect for the Celtics by giving them a close look at what facing them in the NBA Finals would look like — offensive production from their All-Stars, coupled with a defense that will lock you down in the crucial stages of the game. It won’t matter if the Celtics’ star gets his numbers — Irving finished the game with 32 points and 10 assists. What matters is that the Warriors will decide to turn on the switch by suffocating you slowly until you are down and out for the count.

The Celtics are indeed a potential opponent in June. They have the tools on both ends of the floor to match up with the Warriors. But Saturday night served as a lesson to them, one that taught them the value of championship-level defense.

The Warriors’ respect allowed them to claim a victory. The next time they’ll meet, the onus is on the Celtics to return that respect in kind.

Forty-nine down, 33 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.

Statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com

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