The Boston Celtics approached near-transcendent status during the regular season, built on a foundation of nigh-impregnable defense that was considered unimpeachable.
A defensive rating that was 6 points per 100 possessions stingier than league average does deserve a reputation of being trustworthy — especially when such pedigree garners you the distinction of being the best regular season team in calendar year 2022. The Celtics earned the right to be considered title contenders; their ability to stop teams from scoring efficiently has been a formula previously used by others to win championships.
But when people spoke highly of such a defensive reputation during NBA Finals deliberations, much was forgotten — willingly or not — about the other party.
The Golden State Warriors were once the preeminent defensive force during the regular season. They stormed out of the gates and took a commanding lead over the Western Conference and the entire league — not through their intricate and unique style of offense, but with a defense that was on track to become a historically dominant one.
To capture the significance of such a feat, consider the 2004 San Antonio Spurs, who recorded the best relative defensive rating (rDRTG) — the difference between league average defensive rating and a team’s defensive rating — in league history. To this day, their minus-8.8 rDTRG has yet to be matched.
The Warriors came mightily close; their rDRTG after 25 regular season games was exactly minus-8.8. The transcendent nature of their early-season defense took most people by surprise.
The wheels didn’t fall off soon after, but they did eventually show signs of being wobbly. It was fair to consider such a lofty rDRTG to be unsustainable, due to the difficulty of maintaining consistency throughout the grind of a long regular season and the unpredictability of several factors.
The Warriors’ fall-off from their historic pace was mostly due to the latter. Draymond Green’s extended absence due to injury loomed large. Their defense ceased to be transcendent, downgraded to being “merely” good.
They finished the regular season with an rDRTG of minus-5.4, with a defensive efficiency that was better than every other team — except for the Celtics, whose massive improvement in defense corresponded with the Warriors’ fall off.
Some of the doubt placed upon the Warriors’ championship chances came from the question of them regaining their defensive prowess. Such questions were valid — Green was fresh off of his injury; Klay Thompson showed signs of decline as a reliable defender; Andrew Wiggins had the tools, but was an unproven playoff commodity; Jordan Poole was building a reputation for offensive excellence, but was equally gaining notoriety as a defensive liability.
Meanwhile, the Celtics defense limited an all-time scorer in Kevin Durant, made Giannis Antetokounmpo inefficient, and outlasted the Miami Heat machine led by Jimmy Butler. It was hard not to expect them to do the same to the Warriors.
As it turned out, there wasn’t enough faith in the Warriors — particularly, in their culture of defense and the greatness of an offensive singularity — to rise to a level unreachable by every other team, including the Celtics.
Their defense may have declined relative to their early-season success, but the foundation that was established from the beginning never crumbled. Their philosophy of prevention above all else was ever present; their ability to wall off the paint and limit rim attempts persisted, despite the lack of a conventional rim protector.
Keeping actions in front was key in preventing their defense from being put in rotation. Switching the Celtics’ half-court actions proved to be crucial:
“Chicago” action (pindown into dribble handoff) is a pet Celtics action, especially out of the “HORNS” formation. The Warriors muck it up by switching the pindown and the handoff itself. Plan B involves Marcus Smart driving against Kevon Looney, but Looney stifles Smart’s drive, rendering the entire possession fruitless.
The factors in what made the possession above a successful stop are tangible, but other instances demand a more nuanced appreciation of the details. Another failed Smart shot attempt is the outcome below, but the build up to a favorable result deserves to be recognized.
The Celtics’ plan to start Game 6 involved powering through the Warriors’ small lineup using classic bully-ball tactics. Smart posts up Stephen Curry and intends to make a quick move; such notions are discouraged by Green sliding over into the paint and showing help, while also keeping tabs on Robert Williams III in the dunker spot. Smart’s hesitation allows Curry to establish solid footing, resulting in a good contest that forces the miss.
Other subtleties that may not be appreciated immediately involve the highest level of knowledge and defensive IQ that has arguably been seen in an NBA Finals. By his lonesome, Green is a walking repository of fundamentals and knowhow; an uncanny combination of intelligence and instinct directs his movements on defense.
When he senses that his teammate is momentarily compromised, Green instantly reacts:
When Jayson Tatum creates space for himself by giving Looney a bump, Green stunts at Tatum to discourage a pull up. But a stunt is all that Green commits to, knowing that to go beyond a stunt is to commit a cardinal sin on defense: helping one pass away from the strong-side corner.
Tatum’s attack is repelled, so he passes to Jaylen Brown in the corner. Green’s non-committal allows him to recover smoothly toward Brown, who tries to power through Green with a drive — an unwise decision, as Brown soon finds out.
Green’s spatial awareness and quick decision making as a defender are highly advanced, to the point that it comes natural to him. He’s well aware of his opponents’ tendencies, uses it against them, and puppeteers them toward an untenable position — with help from an additional inanimate defender.
Green shades Tatum left, for reasons twofold: 1) to force him to make use of his weaker left hand; 2) to force him baseline (the inanimate “defender” in this instance). Green caps off the possession with anticipatory excellence — once he senses Looney behind him coming to help, Green “peel” switches toward Williams III and intercepts Tatum’s attempted dump off.
In somewhat of a spiritual successor to their game plans from previous series, the Warriors were banking on the likes of Tatum and Brown — two potent individual scorers — to create their own shots, at the expense of their team’s collective offensive flow. Occasionally, hunting for their own offense was justified, especially when against inferior defenders.
Other times, it backfired. The Warriors deftly shored up their defense against potential disadvantage situations by sending early help and — in several instances during Game 6 — springing sudden doubles from unexpected angles.
Contrast how the Celtics’ stars handled blitzes and traps with how the Warriors’ own superstar — experienced and battle-tested in terms of handling hyper-aggressive coverages — countered the aggression thrown at him.
Individual matchups also played an important role. Tatum could not find a consistent answer against Wiggins, which is why finding mismatches he could switch onto not only served to put him in a position to score easily, but also to get Wiggins off of him.
But Wiggins wasn’t easily shaken off. He fought around screens, made constant contact with Tatum, and smothered his attack.
Trusting in the versatility of their defense and in their ability to execute at a high level, the Warriors gave the Celtics varied looks. Doubles, hedges, and even outright switches were on the table; in a vast departure from the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors even trusted Curry to handle occasional switches onto Tatum.
Their faith in Curry was ultimately warranted. He held his own against the larger Tatum, using the strength he has built over the years, coupled with tenacity and pride in his own capabilities as a defender, to defy convention.
Defensive scheme versatility was also a trait that defined the Celtics, but where their stars failed to adapt to the plethora of schemes the Warriors threw at them, Curry succeeded in breaking every single one the Celtics employed. When the Celtics threw two bodies toward Curry — something they’ve resisted doing for most of the series — Curry was prepared and equipped to counter it.
The various levels of drop the Celtics employed — antithetical to a dangerous pull-up shooter — served to keep them out of rotation. Curry found ways around it, as someone of his stature was bound to do.
If there was a defense most equipped to deal with Curry’s off-ball shenanigans, it was the Celtics. But there’s no such thing as absolute defensive perfection; even the sturdiest of defenses present cracks within their armor.
Defending Curry requires complete and utter focus. Even while successfully fending off Curry and preventing him from getting the ball, the various second-side actions and progressions that flow naturally from his movement are wrenches thrown into carefully crafted schemes.
Even the Celtics weren’t immune to such curveballs:
A run-of-the-mill low-post split action for Curry is seemingly denied — Tatum fights over the screen, stays on Curry’s hip, and trails. But Curry’s cut-through serves as a distraction for the subsequent progression: a handoff for Thompson, who curls around Gary Payton II.
Curry’s cut-through preoccupies Williams III, who isn’t in a position to step up and contest Thompson around the handoff. Brown is left on an island, helpless against the two-man action and unable to stay attached to Thompson, who drills the open three.
The Celtics even tried outright switching, but even those were fodder for Curry, who broke down every single defender who took turns on him. From the Defensive Player of the Year in Smart, to capable switch-bigs in Williams III and Al Horford, it simply did not matter.
As expected of a series involving the league’s best defensive units, both teams made life extremely difficult in the half court. The Warriors managed a paltry 91.9 half-court ORTG during the Finals; the Celtics weren’t much better with their 92.1 half-court ORTG. Both marks would’ve been considered among the bottom tier of half-court offenses during the regular season.
The difference proved to be in transition, where the Warriors’ 128.4 transition ORTG dwarfed the Celtics’ 103.0 transition ORTG. A defense built to put pressure and encourage mistakes resulted in turnovers and steals — and the Warriors took full advantage.
But more than just the numbers, it was a matter of experience, poise, and the difference between young stars who can bend defenses with their individual scoring, and a transcendent superstar who can break defenses with his mere presence.
In the end, the Celtics — once thought to be impregnable and unassailable — wilted under the relentless assault of a dynasty reborn.