SAN FRANCISCO — Through four games, this has been an insanely even NBA Finals (even if the individual games have not been).
It’s more than the series being 2-2 — the Warriors are +1 through 192 minutes of game time.
Or, check out these stats:
eFG%: Warriors 54.2%, Celtics 53.7%
Turnover percentage: Warriors 13.5%, Celtics 13.3%
Offensive rebound percentage: Warriors 23.3%, Celtics 23.5%
What will be the factors that separate them in a critical Game 5? Here are three things to watch.
1) Are the Warriors going against a set Celtics defense?
“If we are playing offense the right way, we’d be 3-1, at least, right now,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said.
He’s right. Boston’s elite defense is one of the great forces of this series, and Golden State has a 93.5 half-court offensive rating in the Finals (well below their season average and almost five points below Boston’s this series). However, in transition the Warriors have a 114.8 offensive rating (stats via Cleaning the Glass).
What Udoka is saying is when the Celtics play their game — take care of the ball, drive the paint and finish (or kick out to open shooters) — they get the chance to get back and set their defense. They slow the pace of the game down. When the turnovers mount up, or the Celtics settle and jack-up 3s (as happened in the fourth quarter of Game 4), the Warriors get out on the break and their offense thrives.
“Offense is going to determine, I feel like, the rest of the series for us in a sense,” the Celtics’ Grant Williams said. “If we control and do what we’re supposed to do, we have success. If we don’t… when you have so many turnovers, when you don’t necessarily execute and get less shots and allow offensive rebounds, extra possessions for them, it’s hard to win games that way.”
Which ties into No. 2 on our list.
2) Are Jayson Tatum and the Celtics getting to the rim and finishing?
Tatum has been good this series — 22.3 points, 7.8 assists and 7 rebounds a game, shooting 45.2% from 3 — but he has not been elite, and that’s because of his finishing at the rim. Tatum is shooting just 22.2% on twos this series, and is shooting just over 50% inside the restricted area. When Tatum drives and misses — or turns the ball over, as he did six times in Game 4 — it means the Warriors are off in transition.
Tatum has to be better for the Celtics to win.
“[Tatum is] looking for fouls,” Udoka said. “When he plays off two [feet] and draws the contact, he’s finished well. The other part is inside the three they are really crowding and trying to take that away… Some of the isolations, elbow, things we have done for him, they are really loading up. And even with that, he has to invite that and get guys other shots…
“Then just, quite frankly, he’s missed some easy ones that he usually makes around the basket, especially with their lack of rim protection at times.”
Tatum owns it.
“I know I’m impacting the game in other ways, but I got to be more efficient, shoot the ball better, finish at the rim better,” Tatum said. “I take accountability for that.”
There are stretches where Tatum and the Celtics offense as a whole follows the game plan, but it’s not consistent. They froze up in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and it cost them. The Celtics need more consistency.
Tatum has ascended to near the top of the NBA ladder, he is first-team All-NBA and sixth in MVP voting this season. However, to truly take his place at the game’s highest level, he has to be the best player on the court in the NBA Finals (or at least go toe-to-toe with Curry). The Celtics need that to start in Game 5.
3) Which team is more poised, more disciplined?
By Game 5 of a series like this, there are no more secrets between the teams.
“I think anytime you get to this point in the season, there’s not many huge adjustments you can make,” Draymond Green said. “Like I’ve said before, they know who you are, you know who they are. You’re not going back to reinvent the wheel. You’re not going back to change your playbook. You’re not going back to change your personnel. I think in understanding that, you have to do what you do to the best of your ability.”
Between two evenly matched teams, it’s about execution, poise, and getting the details right.
Stephen Curry has been the best at that. The Warriors as a team have been better.
“Last game a lot of time we had six-point leads and then we took a bad shot on offense or had a turnover or we had a lapse of judgment on the defensive end and gave up open threes. Things like that, just like the mental blips,” The Celtics’ Grant Williams said. “I feel like we haven’t been the most disciplined team this series between the two teams.”
“It’s about being poised, taking our time, executing our offense,” Otto Porter said. “I think if we take our time and not get sped up it will work better in our favor.”
Whichever team shows more poise, shows more discipline will win Game 5 and then will be one win away from an NBA crown.