Warriors Show First Signs of Vulnerability vs. Celtics


It finally happened.

No, the Golden State Warriors didn’t actually lose a game. But for the first time on Friday night, after 23 games of near perfect play, the Warriors finally played like a team that at least showed some sign of vulnerability.

To be fair, though, this game comes with a few caveats. For the Dubs, both Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson sat out with ankle sprains, and for Boston, starting point guard Marcus Smart missed the game with a leg injury. Without their starting wings (and two best shooters not named Stephen Curry), the Warriors’ normal game plan of pushing the pace and jacking up threes wasn’t quite as effective as normal.

That being said, it wouldn’t be right to chalk up the poor performance just to injuries, because plenty of Golden State’s other struggles were a direct result of Brad Stevens out-coaching Luke Walton and the Celtics as a whole out-executing Golden State.

Despite getting the 124-119 win in double overtime, the Warriors were pushed to their absolute limit by a gritty Celtics team playing in front of their fairly obnoxious Beantown fans at the TD Garden. In the loss, Boston managed to hold the Warriors to a pitiful 29% mark from beyond-the-arc (their second lowest this season) and perhaps more importantly, hold Curry to just 9-of-27 from the field.

Yes, Curry did manage to drop 38 points, but I’m pretty sure we all get by now that it’s nearly impossible to stop Steph from getting his. He did hit six of his 13 three-point attempts and made all 14 of his free throws, but the Celtics made almost every single one of his field goal attempts (both inside and outside the arc) a challenge. Without two starters, pretty much everybody could have surmised that Golden State was going to lean heavily on Curry on Friday night. But most people probably wouldn’t have guessed that Boston’s suffocating D was going to force him to commit eight turnovers and shoot just 33% from the field.

Stephen Curry sturggled all night to get on a roll against Boston’s suffocating defense. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

More than maybe any other team in the league, Boston’s defensive principles serve as the perfect balance to the factors that lead to Golden State’s night-in and night-out offensive circus. Uncharacteristic for a team that crashes the offensive glass as hard as the Celtics do, Brad Stevens’ squad has one of the best transition defenses in the league, allowing the second-fewest fast break points in the Association, and having only four opponents manage to best their fast break points per game average in 23 games thus far.

Usually a team that ranks as high as Boston does in offensive rebound percentage (fifth) has uneven floor balance and is susceptible to getting beat down court as they try to sprint back on defense with their backs to the ball. But their excellent floor spacing on offense ensures that in transition, at least two players will be in position to be facing the ball and denying an outlet pass after an opponent’s rebound. On Friday night, the Celtics held Golden State right at its fast break points per game average (a league leading 21.0), and limited the Warriors’ transition opportunities by immediately falling into a quasi-full court press, in which the backcourt players tried to either guard up directly on the ball handler or play denial on the outlet pass.

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In addition to their transition defense, Boston also excels at not only locking down the pick-and-roll, but also making sure that opponents don’t get off wide open threes in the process. Typically, the Celtics have their big man drop back instead of trapping the ball handler or even hedging the screen, which ensures that there will be two players available to guard the play, and is a big reason the Celtics rank in the top ten in points per possession. Another is that the Celtics employ both lanky perimeter defenders and versatile big men, which made it hard for the usual Green and Curry combination to get much traction, especially in crunch time.

The guards were able to stay in Curry’s grill if he came off the screen (forcing him out-of-bounds three times in the fourth quarter/OTs) and the bigs did a solid job of forcing Green to give the ball up as the roll man.

Dec 11, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard

Isaiah Thomas

(4) tries to get ahold of a loose ball in front of Golden State Warriors guard

Shaun Livingston

(34) and guard Stephen Curry (30) during the second half of the Golden State Warriors 124-119 double overtime win over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The result of the Celtics’ lockdown defending was that as the game wound down, Golden State never was really able to get on that one final run that’s usually enough to put them over the top. Consequently, for the first time all season the Warriors didn’t appear to be fully in control of the game down the stretch.

Since I stream a good amount of Dubs games, I’ve almost come to expect that quick, 3-minute, 10 or 12 point Warriors run that puts them over the edge at the end of games. But on Friday it never came, and it was entirely because the Celtics legitimately flustered the Warriors, which is something that has looked impossible for almost a month and a half.

To keep things in perspective though, I should probably stress that Warriors fans really have no reason to be worried. The team is so good after all, that it’s more noteworthy to see them almost lose than it is to see them actually win at this point. Plus, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes were wearing suits on the bench.

So, for now the historic streak continues at 24-0, and the Warriors are going to continue to cause a frenzy in whichever city they take their talents to.

Next stop, Milwaukee.