For the second time in these NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors find themselves in a must-win situation. Yeah, I get it, they’re not technically facing elimination. Play that card if you’d like. But if they go down 3-1 with another loss on Friday, this series is done, just as it would’ve been over had the Warriors dropped Game 2, as no team in history has recovered to win the Finals after losing the first two games at home.
The Warriors know all too well that only one team in history has overcome a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals. That was the Cavs in 2016. That’s not going to happen in this series. It’s already a steep enough climb that Golden State has to win three of the next four games against a Celtics team that looks increasingly superior to this series progresses.
That said, a win in Game 4 changes the equation quite a bit. It would give the home-court advantage back to Golden State in what would become a three-game series. Here are three things that would go a long way toward the Warriors getting it done Friday night.
1. Value every possession
The team that has won the turnover battle has won each of the first three games in this series. Both teams have a way of shooting themselves in the foot with careless turnovers, but the Warriors have less margin for error. They don’t have the defense the Celtics have to fall back on, and they don’t have multiple All-Star level creators like Boston.
What the Warriors have is Stephen Curry, who’s shooting a blistering 49 percent from 3 in this series on over 12 attempts per game. Every time the Warriors turn the ball over, in addition to it leading to transition offense for a more athletic Boston team, it very simply takes one more opportunity away from Curry to launch, and Golden State needs every bit of Curry magic it can muster to keep pace with the Celtics.
These kinds of high-risk passes need to be shelved.
Golden State always walks a fine risk-reward line, and it’s understandable that they would want to press their luck in search of easy baskets against a Boston defense that becomes a monster when it’s set. But these passes just don’t have enough upside. Green is threading too tight a needle in both cases.
The Warriors are scoring 97.2 points per half-court possession in this series, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s almost identical to their regular-season mark. It’s not like they haven’t been able to score, particularly when Curry is on the court, when they pull it back and run their offense. Pushing pace and playing free is great, but the Warriors have to value every possession like the championship is on the line, because it is.
2. Draymond has to show up
Green has been downright bad in two of the three games. For the series, he has more turnovers (6) than made baskets (5). He was aggressive to score in Game 1, finishing 2-for-12. He missed short-roll shots in the paint, layups and four 3-pointers as the Celtics basically disregarded him on the perimeter to sag an extra defend into the paint, mucking up driving lanes.
In Game 3 Green carded two points, three assists and four rebounds before fouling out. After the game, he said he played “like sh-t,” and there’s really no other way to put it.
With Stephen Curry running a ton of pick-and-roll, Green would typically be making a lot of plays off the short roll, but the Celtics aren’t full-out blitzing Curry, so those 4-on-3 opportunities haven’t been there nearly as much as Green is used to.
When Green isn’t kind of scoring offense or really poses his inability to shoot any threat, it becomes a far bigger issue as he basically becomes a non-spacer, trying to hang around the gray too much up which is especially problematic when Kevon Looney, another non-shooter, is out there as well. That’s two guys Boston can ditch to go crowd more imminent threats.
Without much room in the half-court for offensive impact, Green playing great defense becomes even more necessary to justify his minutes, which, let’s be honest, aren’t going to get trimmed no matter how poorly he plays. Problem is, the defense hasn’t been all that great, either.
Point-of-attack defense is a major problem for Golden State in this series. They aren’t staying in front of Boston’s creators, which is starting the domino effect that is leading to all kinds of open shots as Golden State isn’t equipped to protect the kidney without sending multiple defenders down into the lane, and thus, off shooters.
This is not an effort problem. The Warriors simply don’t have the perimeter defenders they used to have. Klay Thompson is a shell of himself defensively. Jordan Poole is a walking target. Curry is a solid defender in a fair fight, but he’s small, and the Celtics took full advantage of that on switches multiple times in Game 3 with Al Horford and Marcus Smart post-ups. Looney can be pulled out and attacked. Bjelica has held up, relatively speaking, but he’s not playing big minutes and he’s certainly not going to be more than a neutral defender at best.
All of this is to say, if Green, one of Golden State’s few truly dependable defenders, is also getting beat, the Warriors really have no chance. Brown got any shot he wanted in the first quarter of Game 3, and plenty of them came at the expense of Green.
Again, this has been a terrible series for Green for the most part. But he has time to flip the script. Just as Curry has to carry an offense that really doesn’t have anywhere else to turn for consistent production, Green has to do the same for the defense. His assumed ability to do that is a big reason why Golden State was favored at the start of this series (not in my eyes, but at least in Vegas) and the fact that he hasn’t fulfilled that responsibility is just as big a reason that they’ve been turned into the underdog.
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3. Poole or Payton game
Unlike the Celtics, who can play lineups in which neither offense or defense is compromised, the Warriors have to choose. If they play Looney for his defense and rebounding, their spacing suffers. If they play Bjelica for his shooting, they lose defense. If they go small for scoring, they get killed on the glass. If they play big, they’re collectively slow.
No two players better reflect this trade-off dilemma than Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II, who jumped Poole in the rotation in Game 2 and looked great but then only played 11 minutes in Game 3. This is a fluid situation. If Poole has it going, he’s too valuable as the lone secondary creator next to Curry, and obviously as the only one when Curry sits, to go without. But his defense is a major issue.
For Payton, it’s the other way. As one of the few guys capable of containing penetration and disrupting Boston’s creators, his defense dele is vital, but he’s not a shooter that Boston is going to give two thoughts to tracking, so he mucks up the spacing. When Payton is on his game, he’s taking advantage of the defensive inattention by cutting for layups and dunks and he’s always great in the open floor.
It would be optimal if these guys had a big game on the same night. They can mirror one another’s minutes and support one another with their contrasting skill sets. But at least one of them has to play big on Friday. Poole getting hot or Payton turning up the defense makes the Warriors a different team. One of those things happening makes the Warriors a little less reliant on Curry erasing all these matchup deficiencies with a nuclear outing — which could happen, but it’s not something on which you want to depend.