Celtics Look Too Physical, Too Strategic for Warriors So Far In NBA Finals

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesFeatured Columnist IVJune 9, 2022

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 08: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors loses control of the ball against Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter during Game Three of the 2022 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 08, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Boston Celtics won 116-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

A lesser team would have folded when Stephen Curry pumped in yet another three to give himself 15 third-quarter points—not to mention give the Golden State Warriors an 83-82 lead that would have seemed impossible minutes earlier.

The Boston Celtics are quite clearly not a lesser team.

That they absorbed the Warriors' patented third-quarter haymaker and then hit back with equal force down the stretch of Wednesday's 116-100 victory shows they may be on the way to something greater.

Golden State's post-halftime barrage usually swings games for good. The team came into Game 3 with a 73-38 third-quarter scoring advantage across the first two games of the Finals and has spent the better part of the last decade crushing spirits in that particular period.

Twice now, though—once in Game 1 and again on Wednesday night—the Celtics staggered, refusing to fall.

Jay King @ByJayKing

Marcus Smart: "For me it was just, be poised. Stay calm. We've been here before."<br><br>Said the Warriors will go on runs.<br><br>"But so will we."

Boston was still outscored by eight points in the third, but it maintained a four-point advantage (though the lead had reached 18 in the second quarter) heading into the fourth. It then held Curry to a single, exceptionally difficult field goal in the last stanza and limited the Warriors to just 11 points in all, taking a 2-1 series lead that, according to history, has a very good chance of holding up.

CBS Sports @CBSSports

In NBA Finals series tied 1-1, the team that wins Game 3 has gone on to win the series 82.1% of the time (32-7) <a href="https://t.co/JLoRyWzw2o">pic.twitter.com/JLoRyWzw2o</a>

It shouldn't be a surprise that the Celtics—behind a stellar 17-point first quarter from Jaylen Brown, 26 points and a team-high nine assists from Jayson Tatum and a team-wide edge in overall physicality—are in this position. They always respond to setbacks, whether in individual quarters or entire games, with resilience.


The Celtics are now 7-0 this postseason after a loss, tied for the most in NBA postseason history. <a href="https://t.co/2ASVPfcqcu">pic.twitter.com/2ASVPfcqcu</a>

What sets this Boston team apart from so many past Warriors opponents is the sheer breadth of options and adjustments at its disposal. These Celtics don't just have a mere single response to adversity—their personnel allows them to choose from several, depending on the circumstances.

In Game 1, Boston shot the lights out in a decisive fourth quarter, hitting nine of its 12 three-point attempts to stun Golden State in San Francisco. Instead of sniping from long distance, the Celtics shifted to a close-quarter, bludgeon-anything-that-moves style to secure Wednesday's win.

Five of the Celtics' eight fourth-quarter buckets came in the paint, the continuation of a game-long trend of total interior dominance.

Anthony Slater @anthonyVslater

116 points for the Celtics in Game 3 and they didn't even go crazy from 3. Warriors weren't strong enough on the interior tonight. Celtics won the paint points 52-26 and the second chance points 22-11.

Robert Williams III was key to the Celtics' success inside. He blocked four shots and snatched three steals while still clearly hobbled by the left knee that has forced him out of the lineup several times throughout the playoffs. Though Boston would surely prefer knowing which version of Williams it was going to get on a given night, his sporadic presence might actually make things trickier on the Warriors.

It must be jarring, strategically, to not know whether layups will be allowed or not. On Wednesday, they were not.

The Hoop Chronicles @TheHoopChron

Robert Williams III may be the most impactful player in the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NBAFinals?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NBAFinals</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/GSWvsBOS?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#GSWvsBOS</a> <br> <a href="https://t.co/IMm1UVWKXA">pic.twitter.com/IMm1UVWKXA</a>

For the Warriors, who've spent years "solving" high-level opponents, Boston's refusal to lose (or win) the same way twice has to be confounding. As does its lack of exploitable defenders. That's been another hallmark of Golden State's run. Eventually, whether via its trademarked off-ball Cuisinart of movement or a steady diet of high pick-and-rolls exploiting a suspect defender, the Warriors have always located and attacked weak links.

It's been Boston on the attack in this series, and Curry has been the target on both ends. Steph finished with 31 points on 12-of-22 shooting, but we already noted the way Boston took him out of the game in the final period. And the Celtics had no shortage of success going at him on the other end.

Kirk Goldsberry @kirkgoldsberry

The Celtics shot 10-of-14 when Stephen Curry was the primary defender. <a href="https://twitter.com/ESPNStatsInfo?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ESPNStatsInfo</a>

For context, Curry was in early foul trouble and essentially defending with his hands behind his back (sometimes literally) all night. The Celtics wore him down on offense with nonstop bumps, shoves and grabs, as per usual. And it should also be noted that Steph's defense was a key part of the Warriors winning Game 2 on Sunday. But Boston's success in battering Curry and putting him in foul trouble was really just a reflection of its broader advantages in this matchup.

The Celtics are bigger, stronger and faster than the Warriors, and they've been the more physical team for the majority of this series. The main concern for Golden State going forward, though, is that it can't be sure which of those many advantages the Celtics will leverage next. Boston can succeed with shooting, dominance on the offensive boards, turnover generation, transition speed and, well...who even knows what else?

The Celtics have a rare combination of overwhelming physical talent and strategic malleability. They don't win in any particular way. They adjust and counter. They take what's there, sometimes with skill, sometimes by force.

Maybe that's why Boston never seems too concerned by rough stretches or lost games. There's a special kind of confidence that comes from knowing that if there's a way to turn a contest around, the Celtics have the ability to find it and execute accordingly.

Over the years, the Warriors have excelled at creating desperation in opponents. In the Celtics, they're only finding resolve.