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How the Warriors made the necessary defensive adjustments to take Game 2

Half-court offense was hard to come by for Boston.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Two Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It only took one possession — the very first possession of the game — for the Golden State Warriors to set the tone early in Game 2.

After winning the tip, the Boston Celtics were preparing to run a half-court set out of “Delay” — a big-man initiating action up top, with multiple shooters moving around on bilateral off-ball action — after Marcus Smart passes to Jayson Tatum on the wing and fills the vacated corner (“21”/”Pistol” action).

When the ball finally finds its way to Al Horford up top for the Delay action, Draymond Green doesn’t waste time stepping up and crowding Horford’s space.

Green forces the jump ball and kills two birds with one stone: addressing the matter of previously ignoring Horford out on the perimeter, and paying Horford back for a similar Horford-induced turnover during Game 1.

The headlines after Game 2 will most certainly zero in on Green’s fiery temperament, emotional state of mind, and penchant for treading a thin tightrope when it comes to testing officials’ patience. He was on the cusp of getting ejected after a back-and-forth with Jaylen Brown; disaster was averted when the officials chose to treat the incident as nothing more than harmless chatter.

The Warriors live and die with Green’s emotion; it serves as fuel for his intensity on the court. Such intensity can often cross over into the realm of recklessness — but to mute Green’s demeanor is to mute the heartbeat of the team.

The “antics” can be too much — fans can attest to that — but it also affects opposing players to a certain degree. Brown was most definitely affected by having to deal with a fiery Green, which may have had something to do with how the Warriors chose to defend him.

The lead-up to Game 2 was full of theorycrafting in terms of potential adjustments. One of the more popular suggestions thrown around was the prospect of Green guarding Brown instead of spending most of his reps on Horford.

It was a sound adjustment for several reasons. Brown had himself a Game 1 (24-7-5), where his shot-making prowess was on full display. Klay Thompson couldn’t find a way to keep himself in front, nor did Jordan Poole, who was a turnstile. The Warriors couldn’t hope to win the series if they left Thompson and Poole consistently on an island against Brown.

There was also the matter of Horford, a 46% shooter on threes heading into Game 2. Green doesn’t have many weaknesses as a defender, but if there ever was one, it’s the prospect of defending stretch bigs — anathema to his role as a roamer and help-side defender who spends a considerable amount of time sagging off of his assignment.

Green didn’t spend most of his time on Horford after forcing the jump ball. He switched up assignments — sometimes guarding Horford, other times guarding Brown. But his time spent on Brown is of particular note.

Green’s tenacity at the point of attack visibly bothered Brown, who has a notorious reputation for having an unreliable handle. Such deficiencies don’t matter as much against smaller and weaker defenders, but Green is the complete opposite; his length and ability to cover more ground, not to mention his physicality and strength, are perfect foils to Brown’s shot creation and downhill juice.

In Game 1, the Warriors threw out aggressive coverages and extra help toward Tatum. They were successful in limiting his scoring flow (12 points on 3-of-17 shooting from the field). But Tatum responded by consistently finding his open teammates and finishing with 13 assists, flashing his much improved floor mapping and playmaking chops.

I’ve often wondered whether committing multiple bodies to Tatum was the right move. The obvious pro is keeping his offensive output to a manageable number — but the obvious con is opening up opportunities for his teammates to punish a tilted defense.

The Jays are a unique scoring duo, but Tatum is developing into a more versatile offensive operator. Brown has yet to establish the kind of passing and floor game that Tatum has refined and elevated to an arguably elite extent, mostly because Brown’s shaky handle is a limiting factor.

Trapping Brown and forcing him to make quick decisions seemed to be the more astute approach. Putting pressure on him forces mistakes, and mistakes are what the Warriors need to generate efficient offense against a non-set Celtics defense.

The trap and forced turnover is the star of the clip above, but what it generates on the other end is of particular note. The Celtics are forced to cobble together a competent half-court defense in transition, but amid the chaos, Thompson — matched up with Horford — relocates from the weak-side corner all the way to the opposite wing, compelling Horford to chase him around screens — an uncomfortable endeavor for someone of Horford’s size.

In addition to Green making the necessary adjustments, Steve Kerr deserves credit for swallowing an uncomfortable truth: Poole, ineffective for the first 6 quarters of this series, needed to be reined in. Kerr sat Poole at the 8:11 mark of the 2nd quarter and sent out Stephen Curry earlier than his customary rest period.

Eventually, Kerr brought out a defensively oriented small lineup, with Gary Payton II as the novel addition. Payton II’s inclusion into the Warriors’ small lineup was a necessary response against the Celtics’ version of small ball.

Having Green and Payton II together on the floor and guarding the Jays ups the defensive ante to a level that is game changing.

In 18 minutes, the Green-Payton II defensive duo outscored the Celtics by 6 points. Extrapolation to efficiency metrics paints a more dominant picture: the duo outscored the Celtics by 19 points per 100 possessions, including a defensive rating of 86.5 — equivalent to the best defense in the league during the regular season.

The effectiveness of the duo wasn’t only due to their individual one-on-one prowess, but also the interchangeability they both present. Payton II can switch matchups in a near limitless capacity:

While Green can jump out and put pressure on the ball like a hound, forcing the Celtics’ decision makers into making the wrong decisions.

That’s Green — hedging out, late switching, and singlehandedly neutralizing the Celtics’ “Spain” pick-and-roll — forcing Tatum into an ill-advised kick out that Curry easily intercepts.

Such versatility from Payton II and Green gives the Warriors more choices while limiting the Celtics’ options. Lesser choices and lesser options for the Celtics means they will have to rely on the individual talents of Tatum and Brown.

The Warriors prefer the Jays beating them with incredible shot making, but not without creating a high degree of difficulty. If that’s the alternative to letting the Celtics establish a collective flow in the half court, they will stomach potential “good-defense-but-great-offense” possessions if those are the exception and not the norm.

The Celtics fell into the very trap they attempted to lure the Warriors into: a string of stagnant half-court possessions with little-to-no advantages created. Part of that is of the Celtics’ own making; the other half of that equation is the Warriors forcing them into stagnation.

A 28-point performance on 19 shots by Tatum belies the efforts of Andrew Wiggins, who hounded Tatum and made him work for his looks. More importantly, Wiggins did not let Tatum get into his comfort zone by picking him up full court, putting pressure on the ball, and forcing the Celtics to get into their action during the latter half of the shot clock — something the Celtics did to the Warriors during Game 1.

Kerr’s decision to focus on defense was reflected in his lineup choices. Poole’s plug was pulled early in the 2nd quarter; in his place was Payton II, along with Curry, Wiggins, Otto Porter Jr., and Green.

This particular 5-man crew outscored the Celtics by 9 points in their 8 minutes of time on the floor, built on a foundation of defense that limited the Celtics offense to an even 100 points per 100 possessions. Having Payton II in place of Poole gives the Celtics lesser targets to hunt mismatches against; lesser weak spots means the Warriors can shore up and keep their opponents under control.

Curry is the sole remaining targetable link, but as he continues to prove throughout this season, his improvement from a passable defender to a positive defender is paying dividends — uncanny for a 34-year-old titan of the game who refuses to rest on his laurels.

Limiting the Celtics to a non-garbage-time half-court offensive rating of 77.1 — equivalent to the worst half-court offense during the regular season — is the Warriors’ recipe for success against the Celtics. If they can stick to the program in hostile territory, regaining home-court advantage is a strong possibility.

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