The common narrative of these NBA Finals is that the Boston Celtics are beating themselves. The idea is that the Celtics are the bigger, more athletic team, they have the best defense, and if they would just stop turning the ball over and getting away from their game plan for stretches, they would lead these NBA Finals.
“If we are playing offense the right way, we’d be 3-1,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said after the Warriors evened the series 2-2.
Maybe that narrative feels true if one lives in the Back Bay, or Roxbury, or Brookline. However, it ignores one simple fact:
The Warriors have an elite defense of their own and they are causing the Celtics’ troubles.
“Well, the key to our game is defense…” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team took a 3-2 series lead. “I thought Gary Payton and Wiggs [Andrew Wiggins] and Draymond really keyed our defensive effort to hold that team to 94 points. That’s what it takes to win a Finals game. It’s got to be about the defense.”
The Warriors had the best defense in the NBA and Draymond Green looked like he might run away with Defensive Player of the Year back at Christmas. However, the surging Celtics defense and Green missing extended time due to injury changed that narrative — but Golden State kept getting stops.
The Warriors still had the second-best defense in the league this season, and that has shown up in the Finals. Boston has a 108 offensive rating through five games of the Finals, 4.2 below their regular season average (for comparison, Boston is holding Golden State’s offense 3.7 below its regular season average; stats via Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time).
Golden State’s defense isn’t built around an imposing rim protector as Boston has with Robert Williams. Instead, the Warriors do it more by swarming a player and getting him to play in a crowd, leading to rushed and bad decisions. Jayson Tatum has been victim to that in the Finals.
The Warriors’ defensive game plan is built to keep opposing teams out of the paint — Golden State gave up the lowest percentage of opponent shots in the restricted area this season (Boston was second). The Warriors have a true team defense built around high IQ players, with Green quarterbacking it, and guys always helping and being in the right spot. Plus, the Warriors’ individual defenders are better than they are given credit for. The Celtics have hunted Stephen Curry at points in these Finals, but he’s an improved defender who has held his own. Otto Porter Jr. turns out to be long and tough. Kevon Looney can be a rim protector when the Warriors need it. Klay Thompson has looked closer to his vintage self on the defensive end of the floor and maybe has had his best defensive series ever.
And the Warriors have two perimeter stoppers: Gary Payton II and Andrew Wiggins. While those two arrived at their roles in these finals on radically different paths, they both have become critical ball-hounding defenders for Golden State this series, particularly with Wiggins drawing the Tatum assignment and holding his own.
“We knew we needed his athleticism and defense and his versatility,” Kerr said of Wiggins’ defense. “We had no idea that he would make this kind of contribution.”
The key is Wiggins is not out there on an island. The Warriors have done a great job of pre-switching to take away some of the picks and pet plays the Celtics want to run, making it harder to hunt Curry or Jordan Poole. When Tatum does drive, help arrives in the form of Green or Looney or someone clogging the paint, the Warriors help the helper and their defense swarms. Tatum has not adjusted to that.
It all comes from a system designed by Warriors’ assistant (soon to be Kings’ head coach) Mike Brown and drilled into the team over the course of 82 games — the Warriors spent a season building good defensive habits. Brown as the coach and Green as the defensive leader held everyone accountable.
All that work, all those film sessions are paying off now. Golden State is one win away from its fourth NBA title in eight seasons.
And if it happens, their defense will be the key reason.