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Thursday, June 09, 2022

Bigger, Stronger, Faster Celtics Overwhelm and Outlast Warriors

Anything can happen in a quarter or even in one game, but over the course of a seven game NBA playoff series the bigger, stronger, and faster team will most likely prevail. Three games into the 2022 NBA Finals, it should be obvious which team is bigger, stronger, and faster--namely, the Boston Celtics team that showcased their size, strength, and speed in a 116-100 game three win over the Golden State Warriors to take a 2-1 series lead while maintaining the home court advantage that the Celtics obtained by winning game one on the road. The Celtics dominated the boards (47-31), and they won the points in the paint battle, 52-26. Proponents of "advanced basketball statistics" value three point shooting over two point shooting, but the Warriors got blown out despite making more three pointers (15-13) while shooting a better three point field goal percentage (.375 to .371). Simply put, the Warriors cannot make enough three point shots to compensate for the Celtics' decisive physical advantages.

Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 27 points on 9-16 field goal shooting. He also had nine rebounds and five assists. Brown did most of his scoring damage in the first quarter (17 points on 6-9 field goal shooting), but his size and skill required significant defensive attention throughout the game, even if no one will credit him with having "gravity." Jayson Tatum added 26 points, a game-high nine assists, and five rebounds. Tatum's "gravity" is even more significant than Brown's, because Tatum's size and skill set leave the Warriors with two unenviable options: cover Tatum one on one, and watch him score 30-plus points on high efficiency shooting, or force Tatum to play in a crowd while leaving his teammates wide open. The Warriors have consistently signed up for the second option, and have thus watched Tatum dissect them with pinpoint playmaking while still contributing as a scorer as well. Marcus Smart scored 24 points on 8-17 field goal shooting while also grabbing seven rebounds and passing for five assists. 

The Celtics' three best perimeter players not only outplayed the celebrated "Splash Brothers," but they became the first trio to each post a 20-5-5 stat line in an NBA Finals game since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Michael Cooper accomplished this in game six of the 1984 NBA Finals.

Meanwhile, Robert Williams III scored eight points, ripped down a game-high 10 rebounds, spiked a game-high four blocked shots while looking like Karch Kiraly, and posted a game-best +21 plus/minus number. He looked like a man among boys in the paint at both ends of the court.

Stephen Curry scored a game-high 31 points on 12-22 field goal shooting, but it should be noted that he had two assists, three turnovers, and four fouls. We are told that Curry is one of the top 15 players of all-time, but we see that in the 2022 NBA Finals the Celtics "hunt" him defensively like a lion pursuing a lame wildebeest on the Serengeti--and this is not the first time that Curry has played the role of "prey" in such scenarios. The greatest guards of all-time--the guards in my pro basketball Pantheon--are (in chronological order) Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant. Johnson was the worst defensive player of that group, but not only was he not "hunted" like Curry, he was capable of being assigned to guard an elite player: in the 1982 NBA Finals, the Lakers matched the 6-9 Johnson up with Pantheon small forward Julius Erving to try to keep Erving off of the offensive boards. Johnson was an elite rebounder who could capably guard multiple positions. 

Klay Thompson scored 25 points, but his 7-17 field goal shooting is not going to concern or bother the Celtics. Thompson was an elite defender prior to his two serious leg injuries, but now he is just a solid defender.

Draymond Green, the Warriors' mouth that roared, went beyond "triple single" status to coin a new statistical category: the straight flush (four rebounds, three assists, two points). If there were an "advanced basketball statistic" depicting an inverse correlation between words spoken and impact created, Green would lead the league in that category by a wide margin. He tells everyone how great he is, how smart he is, and how great his team is, and he hopes that his torrent of words will distract us from the reality that he is overrated. Yes, he is a very good player who can have a positive impact, but at the core he is an undersized power forward who is not a scoring threat and who can be overpowered by any big player who has a modicum of skill. There is no way that Green could be the best player on a playoff team, and no one would have ever heard of him if he had not been blessed to play with multiple All-Star caliber players throughout his career.

From a wider historical perspective, we are getting just a glimpse of what it would look like if a championship team from the 1980s or 1990s teleported into the 2022 NBA Finals to face the Warriors: Green is outmatched by Robert Williams III playing on one healthy knee, so it is obvious that Green could not do much versus Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, or Hakeem Olajuwon. Green could not play center against those guys without being embarrassed, and Green would not have fared well versus that era's elite power forwards, either. Kevin McHale once said, quite correctly, that Green "could not grow enough to guard me." McHale also has derisively noted that the "7-11 defense" (a defensive player holding his arms straight in the air as if he is being robbed at a 7-11) never works. Green often had no choice but to play the "7-11 defense" as Williams III outmuscled and outjumped Green for rebounds. 

It was also annoying to watch Green bark at the referees after he fouled out; fouling out should not come with a license to endlessly complain, so the referees should have hit Green with a technical foul to encourage him to sit down and shut his mouth. The extent to which the NBA permits Green to run roughshod over their referees is embarrassing. The officiating crews in the NBA Finals graded out as the best of the best during the regular season; letting Green loudly and publicly belittle and berate them gives the impression that the referees are not doing a good job and are also too afraid to exert control over bad player conduct.

Size matters in the NBA, and ABC's Jeff Van Gundy spoke the obvious truth that many commentators refused to acknowledge prior to this series and are still reluctant to admit even now: the Celtics outmatch the Warriors in size and athleticism. Van Gundy suggested that the Warriors should consider altering their lineup and rotations to try to minimize the impact of the Celtics' advantages. 

The 2022 NBA Finals are poised to become the series where popular narratives go to die. We are told that Stephen Curry's three point shooting revolutionized the NBA, but the most revolutionary aspect of Golden State's run is not Curry's three point shooting but rather the impact of Kevin Durant fleeing Oklahoma City in 2016 to become a two-time champion/two-time Finals MVP with the Warriors. LeBron James formed a superteam from scratch in Miami in 2010, but Durant did something at least as revolutionary: he left an established elite team to join another established elite team, adding fuel to the "player empowerment" trend. Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, and James Harden are just a few of the All-Stars who determined that the grass is greener elsewhere and then forced their way onto other teams. This notion of building a team instantly instead of organically is not good for the game; hopefully, the success of the Milwaukee Bucks last season and the Boston Celtics this season will help to end (or least curb) this trend.

Any player analysis that results in the conclusion that Curry is a top 15 player of all-time but the Warriors can replace Durant with Andrew Wiggins without losing anything is, to put it mildly, highly suspicious. Curry is a great player, but he is just not the revolutionary player who he is depicted as being. In my March 2020 article The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part III, I noted that Curry's Warriors only led the NBA in three pointers made one time (2016) while James Harden's Houston Rockets ranked first in that category five times (2014-15, 2017-19; after I finished that article, Harden's Rockets led the NBA in three point field goals made in 2020 as well). Further, the Warriors never embodied the notion of jacking up three pointers all the time while playing scant attention to defense; the Warriors at their best were always a very good defensive team, while Harden's Rockets were mediocre at best defensively.

Turning our attention back to game three, the Celtics punched the Warriors in the mouth from the start, and they led most of the way. Boston led by as many as 15 points in the first quarter, and the Celtics were up 33-22 by the end of the first stanza. They outshot the Warriors .545 to .348, and they outrebounded the Warriors 16-8. 

The Warriors battled back to take an 83-82 lead with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter, but their glory was short-lived, and the Celtics never trailed again after the 3:12 mark of the third quarter. Just prior to taking that brief lead, the Warriors had a seven point possession consisting of a Curry three pointer, a Curry free throw after Al Horford was called for a flagrant foul for not letting Curry land safely, and an Otto Porter three pointer. The Warriors scored almost as many points on that possession as they did in the entire fourth quarter!

Much has been said about the "third quarter Warriors," but it is odd that so little is being said about the "fourth quarter Celtics": the Celtics are not only winning the fourth quarters in the 2022 NBA Finals, but they are leading the series 2-1 in no small part because of their fourth quarter dominance, so that would seem to be more significant than whatever the Warriors are doing in the third quarters. Boston won the fourth quarter of game three 23-11 as Curry scored two points on 1-4 field goal shooting and Thompson did not score while missing all three of his field goal attempts. The Warrior's 11 fourth quarter points are the third fewest in an NBA Finals game dating back to the beginning of the shot clock era.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 AM



At Thursday, June 09, 2022 8:10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Draymond Green had a pretty lackluster "triple single" last night. A reporter asked him about his podcast and if maybe he was too revealing about X's and O's. Green scoffed at that notion, ridiculed the reporter. Isiah Thomas, someone who knows what's required at the NBA championship level, also commented. He said that Green talking to Cedric Maxwell on a podcast during the Finals was a distraction. Kenny Smith, also in the know about the Finals, agreed with Thomas.

I'm inclined to agree with Thomas' point about the Finals requiring full focus. Yes, Jordan famously gambled in Atlantic City in the wee hours between playoff games. But then again he dropped 50-something on the Knicks, which rendered him more or less bulletproof against the criticism.

But Green dropped 2 points 3 assists and 4 rebounds. Seems to me like he needs to cut the podcast until these Finals are over.

At Thursday, June 09, 2022 4:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As you suggest, the amount of slack that could/should be provided to a player is proportional to the value provided by that player. Jordan was pretty much bulletproof because of his high level of productivity. Rodman caused a lot of headaches, but he provided enough value that the Bulls embraced him; as his productivity declined and as he joined organizations that lacked the Bulls' stability/temperament, the slack provided to him decreased.

Green is a depreciating asset who, even at his peak, was likely overrated. It will be fascinating to watch how his career arc progresses. If the Warriors do not win the 2022 championship, and if they struggle to return to the Finals again, how much nonsense will the team tolerate from him? Players who produce the 2-3-4 "triple single" are not that difficult to replace, regardless of the alleged intangibles that they provide. Green has openly admitted that in two of the first three games of the NBA Finals he has not played with the requisite energy, focus, or force. If he is not focused now, when will he be focused again? If I ran the Warriors, I would not mind seeing him start his full time TNT career now, because I would not find him so difficult to replace.

At Thursday, June 09, 2022 6:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curry's mental game was atrocious; as the central creator on offense, he picked up ill-advised fouls on defense (3 in first half, fourth early in second half on a terrible reach-in that Smart converted into 3FTs by making a shooting motion, from behind the arc). Curry's early foul trouble impacted his availability and ability to play aggressively on offense. very un-clutch.

Wiggins' defense had no impact, and he's not worth too much on offense. former #1 pick, lots of phys skills/size; he supposedly found his niche with GSW, but I'm not sold on him.

thoughts on these items?


At Friday, June 10, 2022 10:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that Curry did not display much mental focus/mental toughness in game three.

Throughout his career, Wiggins has shown flashes of his potential, but he has not consistently produced at a high level. This season he played reasonably well for a successful team and thus was selected as an All-Star, but he does not seem to have the necessary motor to establish himself as a great player.


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