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"We pretty much dominated the game for the first 41, 42 minutes," Golden State Warriors defensive guru Draymond Green said of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which his team trailed at halftime, "so we'll be fine."
It is hard to tell if this was just hubris or complete disregard for the Boston Celtics' performance, but the holdovers from Golden State's three championships echoed their spiritual leader's sentiments following Thursday's 120-108 loss — their first at home in these playoffs and third in this core's 30 series openers.
The sense you got from listening to Warriors leadership was that they felt the Celtics got lucky, especially since Al Horford, Derrick White and Marcus Smart combined to make 15 of 23 attempts from 3-point range.
"We obviously scored enough to win," said Stephen Curry. "It's just, they make 21 threes, and some guys who had career nights shooting the ball, that was really the difference, based on how it felt on the court."
"It's going to be tough to beat Boston if they are making 21 threes and getting 11 combined from Horford and White," added Warriors coach Steve Kerr, and he is right. Horford's six 3-pointers were a career high, and White's five were the most he had made since making six or more in an 18-day stretch of April 2021.
This championship series spans 17 days.
Point being, players run hot and cold. It all comes out in the wash. Game 1 was no different, but Golden State's postgame analyses ignore what will be clear when they watch film: Boston created better looks. It is a testament to the Celtics' effort on both offense and defense, where they have been a combined 8.4 points per 100 possessions better than Golden State since the calendar turned to 2022, including these playoffs.
The Celtics have generated 43.6 shots per game this postseason that NBA tracking data considers open (closest defender within 4-6 feet) or wide open — better than 50% of their shots, including 83% of their 3-point attempts. Boston has scored an average of 51.9 points per game on 43.6 open or wide-open shots in the playoffs (1.19 points per shot). That is better than the 52.2 points on 45.9 open or wide-open shots per game (1.14 points per shot) the Celtics scored from Jan. 1 to the end of the regular season, which makes some sense, considering they are more precisely hunting quality shots from quality shooters in the playoffs.
That they have done so playing 14 of their 19 playoff games against the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat — the two other top-three defenses in the playoffs — should raise some eyebrows around the Warriors.
An eye-opening 59 of Boston's 85 field-goal attempts in Game 1 against Golden State came on open or wide-open shots, including 38 of their 41 attempts from 3-point range. They scored 73 points on those 59 shots — or 1.24 points per shot — so, yes, they outperformed their expected percentages in the opener.
The Warriors generated 12 fewer open or wide-open shots than the Celtics and scored 56 points on them — 1.19 points per shot. That is slightly worse than the 1.21 points per open or wide-open shot they have scored in these playoffs, playing 10 of their 16 games against the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets, whose defenses respectively rank ninth and dead last among the league's 16 playoff teams this season.
Golden State scored 1.12 points per open or wide-open shot during the regular season.
So, when Curry said after Game 1, "You just live and die by the shots that they can make," it struck a chord. All things equal, would you not want to be the better defensive team that allows fewer clean looks at the basket? Klay Thompson was asked if he was comfortable with the shots Boston got and answered, "No, because they were great looks for them. As a shooter, when you hit a couple open shots and when the guy is in your face, it doesn't — you know, you've got the rhythm going, so it's easier to make those."
That perspective feels a little closer to reality than chalking up Boston's success to dumb luck.
In the aggregate, both teams outperformed expected percentages in Game 1 when you account for who is attempting every shot, who is defending each and dozens more contributing factors to the ShotQuality algorithm. According to ShotQuality, when the Warriors led 87-72 inside of two minutes left in the third quarter, the algorithm pegged the Celtics for a 70-68 advantage on quality of possessions at that point.
In the end, the Celtics won by 12, as they were expected to based on the quality of their shots. Consider Jayson Tatum (3-17 FG) and Jaylen Brown (10-23 FG) shot a combined 2 for 11 on open and wide-open 3-point attempts, and you can see how water found its level, despite Horford, White and Smart getting hot.
🚨The Celtics Take Game 1🚨
The Boston Celtics scored 17 more SQ points on 3FG than expected, amounting to a scorching 🔥51%🔥 from beyond the arc.
🔖 The Warriors had their 2nd WORST quality of possession all season! pic.twitter.com/PX8WDdnTuO
— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) June 3, 2022
This is the issue with facing the Celtics. Smart, White, Brown, Tatum, Horford and Grant Williams can all defend and shoot at a high level. Even Payton Pritchard stood his ground on both ends of the floor against the smaller Warriors. Lineups featuring Horford at center were +19 in 17 minutes opposite Golden State in Game 1. The Horford-Tatum-Brown-White-Smart lineup everyone expected to excel was +13 in seven minutes.
The Warriors do not have the same luxury. They are either playing multiple below-average shooters or at least two defensive targets at all times. Thompson's post-injury legs really hurt them in this regard. Their vaunted Death Poole lineup, featuring Jordan Poole alongside Curry, Green, Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, might be unplayable in this series, given its deficiency in size. They got seven points on four shots from 38-year-old Andre Iguodala and still lost his 12 minutes by six points. The numbers are concerning, especially considering Curry, Wiggins and Thompson combined for 69 points on high-efficiency scoring.
"Yeah, I missed some bunnies. My threes felt good," said Green, who missed his four open or wide-open 3-point attempts and is shooting 22% on them in the playoffs. "I'll continue to stay aggressive. They will fall."
The Celtics will abide by the math with Green's shooting, just as they will with their own.
"Every time we got the ball in the middle, they collapsed the paint, and kick-outs were wide open," Celtics coach Ime Udoka said candidly. "Guys stepped up and made them. We'll take that all the time. Knowing they're a little smaller, don't have rim protection, they do it as a team, and that's a shot they give up a lot."
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