Keys for Boston Celtics to Save Their Season in Game 6 vs. Warriors
The Boston Celtics must now win consecutive games against the Golden State Warriors to leave the 2022 NBA Finals as champions. That's the bad news.
The good news? The Celtics have been here before.
Boston needed to climb out of 3-2 hole against the Milwaukee Bucks to emerge from Round 2. And though the semifinals are certainly not the Finals, the Celtics have not been so thoroughly outplayed by the Warriors that they're suddenly a hopeless cause.
On the contrary, with a few adjustments and improvements, they are eminently equipped to bag Game 6 and force a Game 7—if not win this series.
Let's get into the factors that will determine the fate of their season, with an emphasis on elements of the game they can control. (In other words, pleading with Jayson Tatum to hit more of his two-pointers won't fly.)
Downsize with RW3 More Often
The Celtics' go-to one-big lineup isn't having the easiest go of it this series. The combination of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford was a minus-nine through just over nine minutes of action in Game 5 and is now a minus-18 in 46 minutes for the series—with an offensive rating south of 94.
Boston has responded throughout the Finals by leaning into its big model. That's not unforgivable. Derrick White hasn't looked great on offense the past game-and-a-half, and Payton Pritchard gives Golden State someone to aggressively target at the other end.
Still, on paper, the Celtics have more one-big bandwidth than the Warriors. That is the luxury the defensive pressure and malleability Brown, Smart, Tatum and White afford them. They should be looking to maximize that flexibility.
Turning to Horford may simply no longer be the answer. He more than Robert Williams III needs to play back in actions featuring Stephen Curry, and saddling a 36-year-old with 35-plus minutes per game is a lot to ask.
Pivoting to more RW3-as-the-lone-big lineups is dependent on the state of his left knee, which has dictated how the Celtics use him all playoffs. But he's cleared 30 minutes in each of the past two games, and the numbers for this series favor his usage.
In the 47 minutes RW3 has logged without Horford, Boston is outscoring Golden State by 20 points per 100 possessions. Through the 48-plus minutes Horford has tallied sans RW3, meanwhile, the Celtics are getting waxed by 20 points per 100 possessions. For the rest of this series, Boston seems better off flipping the script. It doesn't have to increase RW3's overall minutes, per se. It just needs to get him more reps as the lone man in the middle.
Don't Over-Defend Steph Curry
Onlookers by and large annihilated the Celtics for playing drop coverage against Stephen Curry through the first four games of this series. Then, on the heels of Steph's 43-point masterpiece in Game 4, Boston threw more face-guarding, doubles and outright blitzes at the man-myth-legend during Game 5.
The adjustment worked. Sort of. Steph finished 7-of-22 from the floor while missing all nine of his three-point attempts.
And the Celtics lost anyway.
As Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper noted during Game 4 when Boston began tossing more aggressive looks Steph's way in the fourth quarter, playing drop against Curry served a larger purpose—mostly stamping out the rest of Golden State's offense. That balance shifted in Game 5.
Draymond Green had more room to work in the pocket/on short rolls and Steph dimed up shooters and cutters and had more room to complete handoffs. Paying so much attention to him off the ball also demanded a ton of sweat equity. The Celtics were caught Steph-watching on more than one occasion, and attempting to face-guard him while he pinballed around the court without possession was exhausting to even watch.
This is not to suggest Boston should take a laissez faire approach to pestering Steph. Drop coverage is still a questionable decision. But maybe there's a happy medium—like coming up higher, closer to the level of the screen, before eventually retreating.
In the end, though, if the Celtics boil this down to a decision between limiting Steph and erasing the rest of the Warriors' best offense, they're better off choosing the latter.
Protect the Ball...or at Least Get into the Offense Faster
Urging the Celtics to protect the ball oversimplifies their issues at the offensive end to some extent. As BBall Index's Krishna Narsu explained, they aren't merely short-circuiting possessions with high-leverage passes. Boston has, at times, struggled to hold onto to the rock, committing an unhealthy number of "lost ball" errors.
"These are the the types of turnovers where it can expose not great ball-handling," Narsu wrote. "These types of turnovers are different from simply 'don't turn the ball over' because they are clear weaknesses. Not something the player is choosing to do."
Shaky ball-handling is ingrained into the Celtics' roster. They can't suddenly change that. And as Narsu also unpacked, simply trimming their share of risky passes isn't always a good thing.
Still, if Boston is going to work deep into the shot clock, it needs to at least figure out how to end possessions with an actual shot. The Warriors were plus-13 in the points-off-turnovers department for Game 5 and are now plus-24 for the series. They're averaging 1.41 points per possession overall if the Celtics cough up the ball, according to Inpredictable.
If asking Boston to cut down on its turnovers is too much to ask, then the overarching offense needs to be conducted with more urgency.
Nearly 23 percent of the Celtics' field-goal attempts are coming inside seven seconds of the shot clock. That share jumps to around 29 percent in the fourth quarter. These games have not been close enough, and Boston has not converted late-clock looks nearly well enough, to run an offense that seems more concerned with biding time than generating quality looks.
Accelerating mode of operations is, of course, easier in theory than practice. Golden State's defense is tough to crack when it gets set. But Boston isn't looking to push often enough from the Warriors' misses. More than that, too many of the Celtics' offensive possessions see half the clock burn away before they actually attack, a penchant that has helped contribute to the quality of looks fueling Jayson Tatum's sub-32-percent clip inside the arc.
Something needs to give, whether it's fewer turnovers or quicker offensive initiation. Preferably, it'll be both. But even one would go a long way.
Make Your Free Throws
Pretty basic? Sure. That doesn't make it wrong.
Boston ranked second in free-throw percentage during the regular season, drilling 81.6 percent of its foul shots. It was similarly accurate through the first three rounds of the playoffs, connecting on 81.0 percent of its freebies. But its accuracy has slid to 72.9 percent in the Finals.
This hasn't prevented the Celtics from winning the overall free-throw battle. They are plus-15 at the charity stripe compared to the Warriors.
But every little thing matters at this level, and Boston has left points on the board.
During Game 5, specifically, the Celtics missed 10 free throws. Making most of those wouldn't have been the difference given they trailed by as many at 16 points, as well as the margin by which they lost the turnover battle (18-6). It still matters.
Draining more free throws isn't an adjustment teams can just make. In the Celtics' case, they have a track record of being better. Getting more hits from Al Horford (55.6 percent on nine attempts) or Jayson Tatum (65.6 percent on 32 attempts) would by itself be huge.