For the Celtics, two keys have emerged through the first two games: Jayson Tatum walking the line between scorer and facilitator, and their ongoing battle against the turnover bug. The latter has had massive implications in Boston getting blitzed by Golden State in back-to-back third quarters.
For the Warriors, the burden lies on Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole to provide Finals MVP favorite Stephen Curry with some offensive support. Whether it’s Thompson hitting YouTube for inspiration or Poole finding a spark after his half-court buzzer-beater in Game 2, both Golden State stars need to find their game.
What lies ahead in Wednesday’s crucial Game 3 (9 p.m. ET, ABC) between the Celtics and Warriors? What trends have developed through the first two showdowns? Our NBA experts break down what will matter most in Game 3 and throughout the rest of the series.
For Celtics, one stat rules them all
Throughout these playoffs, you can accurately predict what the result will be for the Celtics in a given game based on a single stat: turnovers.
Boston’s record when it has 15 turnovers or fewer: 13-2. Boston’s record when it has 16 turnovers or more: 0-5.
That trend has carried over into the NBA Finals, as the Celtics committed 12 turnovers in their Game 1 win and coughed up the ball 19 times in their Game 2 loss.
“That’s been an ongoing theme in the playoffs so far,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said.
Any team will see better results when it doesn’t commit turnovers, but the contrast has been devastating for Boston. When the Celtics have a chance to set their defense, they are an exceptionally difficult team to score against in half-court offensive sets.
Giving teams free shots in transition as a result of turnovers takes away one of Boston’s biggest strengths. And in the Finals, allowing Curry and the Golden State Warriors fast-break opportunities is a recipe for disaster.
Boston learned that the hard way in Game 2, as the Celtics’ 19 turnovers turned into a staggering 33 points for Golden State. Meanwhile, Boston turned 12 turnovers into 15 points, an 18-point swing in Golden State’s direction in a game the Warriors won by 19.
“I know we can prevent a lot of those,” Celtics big man Al Horford said. “In order for us to [have] a better chance of winning, we have to cut those down.”
Those turnovers have also helped fuel Boston’s other recurring problem in these playoffs: awful third quarters. Against the Warriors — through two games, Golden State has dominated the third quarters 73-38 — those lapses in focus will be even more painful than in past rounds against a Milwaukee Bucks team missing Khris Middleton and a banged-up Miami Heat squad.
Keep an eye on Boston’s turnovers in Game 3. Know where that number winds up, and you’ll have a good handle on where the game will, too.
— Tim Bontemps
The Draymond show hits Beantown
To Draymond Green, the playoffs are a collection of best-of-seven chess matches that he calls “a thinker’s game.”
“If I outthink you, I can win,” Green said. “Then to take it a step further, the playoffs are way more physical. They let you hit during the playoffs. They let you get hit during the playoffs. I’m totally fine with getting hit if I can hit. The playoffs is just a totally different brand of basketball.
“The playoffs just wake up a totally different monster … This is the time I need to be my absolute best.”
The Warriors didn’t get the best version of Green in Game 1, and it showed. Boston knocked down nine 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and Al Horford outplayed him in the Celtics’ series-opening win.
But Game 2 showed why Green’s attitude and energy are nonnegotiable when it comes to Golden State’s ability to do this week what it has done in an NBA-record 26 straight postseason series: win at least one road game.
Golden State’s feisty leader vowed to rebound from Game 1, and he made the Celtics feel his presence defensively and hear his trash talk in a Warriors’ Game 2 rout.
So while Curry’s offense is vital, one of the Warriors’ biggest keys to winning Game 3 is Green’s attitude-adjusting energy. When he is at his best, Green is not only flying all over the court, but he is a world-class agitator — or as the late comedian Charlie Murphy famously coined, “a habitual line-stepper.”
Green often pushes the limits of what he can get away with — toward opponents and officials — even with a technical already under his belt, as was the case in Game 2. Green not only wants to outthink opponents; he wants to get inside their heads.
So while another nine-point, seven-assist, five-rebound performance like Sunday will be nice, it will be all the things outside the box score that give Golden State life.
Warriors assistant Mike Brown likens Green’s freelancing and unpredictability on defense to the deflating impact Curry’s 3-point heaves from near half court can have on an opponent.
“Steph does some crazy s—,” Brown said. “You know those shots if they go in, it’s going to break the spirit of your opponent. Same with Draymond. Draymond’s feel and anticipation and all that other stuff is off the charts, and so when he decides to go make a play, 95 percent of the time, just like Steph offensively, it’s going to impact our opponents’ offense.”
Public enemy No. 1 in Boston this week doesn’t plan on being shy. Golden State can’t afford Green to be timid, either.
“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’m going on about my summer and we lost the NBA Finals because we couldn’t meet force with force,” Green said on Tuesday. “That is my department.”
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Tatum walking line between scorer and facilitator
After the Celtics won Game 1 of the Finals behind Tatum’s career-high — regular season or playoffs — 13 assists, ESPN Stats & Information research noted something fascinating: The victory brought Boston to 17-2 (.895) this season when Tatum hands out at least seven assists, the best record in such games among all players with at least 15 of them.
When the Celtics then got blown out in Game 2 with Tatum handing out just three assists, tied for his lowest in a game this postseason, the idea solidified that Boston might be better off with Tatum playing distributor rather than scorer.
It’s worth noting that assists are an imperfect measure of playmaking on a game-by-game basis. Tatum had so many assists in Game 1 in part because teammates shot so well off his passes (13-of-19, per Second Spectrum tracking of assist opportunities).
Although the 19 opportunities were Tatum’s most potential assists in a game this season, according to Second Spectrum, they could have resulted in many fewer assists. Tatum facilitated 18 assist opportunities in Game 4 in Round 1 against the Brooklyn Nets, but teammates went just 5-of-18 on those shots, meaning that game doesn’t qualify. (The Celtics still won.)
If we look at Tatum’s top 16 games by Second Spectrum assist opportunities, featuring a minimum of 13, Boston still plays well (12-4 across the regular season and playoffs) but is no longer quite so unbeatable. More broadly, the modest relationship between Tatum’s assist opportunities in a game and the team’s differential is not nearly as strong as the relationship with assists because of the way his assist totals also reflect how well Tatum’s teammates shoot on his passes.
Additionally, it would be a mistake to paint Tatum’s choice as between being aggressive as a scorer and looking to distribute. It’s not necessarily an either/or decision. Tatum’s shot attempts and trips to the free throw line are a bit lower on a per-minute basis in his games with at least seven assists — combining them, Tatum finishes 21.5 plays per 36 minutes, down from 22.8 in his low-assist games — but the difference in assists per 36 minutes (from 3.8 to 7.8) is far larger.
Boston doesn’t need or even want Tatum coming out looking primarily to facilitate. If the way the Warriors defend Tatum again creates opportunities for him to set up teammates for open shots, Tatum must take advantage the way he did in Game 1. But Tatum’s willingness to score should set up his ability to pass rather than the other way around.
— Kevin Pelton
Warriors need bigger splash from Curry’s co-stars
Curry has provided everything the Warriors hoped for through the first two games of the Finals. In Game 1, he scored 21 points in the first 12 minutes. In Game 2, he finished with 29 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals.
He’s making a strong argument for his first Finals MVP, but barring a Jerry West moment, the Warriors will need to win the championship for Curry to break through. For that to happen, he needs more offensive help from Thompson and Poole — when each scores at least 25 points, Golden State is 8-0 in these playoffs.
Through two games, Thompson is averaging 13 points on 10-of-33 shooting, including 4-of-15 from deep. Boston’s defense has done a good job on Thompson — he shot 1-of-13 on contested shots in Game 2.
Thompson’s 30.3% shooting is his third-worst effort through the first two games of any playoff series in his career, and his 21.1% shooting in Game 2 was his third-worst performance in any of his 141 career playoff games.
Like Thompson, Poole is averaging 13 points but on 8-of-21 shooting, including 6-of-14 from 3.
Poole has also looked rushed and smothered by the Celtics, working without the floor space that unlocks the most dangerous parts of his game.
Poole has seven turnovers through the first two games, the most of any player in the Finals. He has shot 0-for-5 on paint attempts, which have become an important part of his game when his jumper isn’t falling.
But he might have rediscovered his game in Game 2, in which he scored 17 points and knocked down two momentum-shifting 3-pointers to cap off the Warriors’ monster third quarter — including a buzzer-beater from just over half court. There is reason to believe Thompson will turn his series around, too.
Throughout the playoffs, Thompson has averaged 15.4 points on 39% shooting in Games 1 and 2. In the ensuing games, however, he’s averaging 22 points on 50% shooting.
The Warriors need that version of Thompson, along with the Poole from Game 2, to show up on Wednesday in Boston.
— Kendra Andrews