Before facing Warriors star Stephen Curry in the Finals, the Celtics were tested by a string of superstars in the Eastern Conference, including Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and — an impressive Surprisingly the most difficult of the trio – Jimmy Butler.
Against all three Eastern Conference opponents, the Celtics found a way to contain the opposing superstars. Grant Williams was healthy and troubled Durant, while the rest of the Celtics pushed the Nets out of the playoffs in four abrupt games. Antetokounmpo gave the Celtics everything they could, but the Al Horford-Williams duo has some answers for the Bucks’ superstar, and — again — defense elsewhere on the team Members are controlled. The entire team fought their best in the seven-game series against Butler.
But Stephen Curry is an entirely different challenge.
Antetokounmpo played like a bulldozer. Curry plays with explosive speed and unmatched precision. Butler played with willpower. Curry is playing gravity. The Celtics’ defense was the best in the NBA during the regular season and led the way throughout the playoffs, but even the Celtics struggled to figure out how to contain Curry.
Here’s a screenshot of Curry’s first shot attempt of the night — a layup that Smart fought fiercely for. In this game, Horford jumped high enough to coax Curry into a 3-pointer—note Horford’s one foot above the 3-point line when Curry started his offense.
However, the Celtics are clearly focusing on getting their guards and wings to fight on screens and getting their bigs back to prevent a breakout. That makes the Warriors look clean in the pick-and-roll, like this — one of six 3-pointers Curry buried Wednesday.
As you can see, Derrick White did his best to keep Curry missing, but Horford barely resisted and Curry had the upper hand.
“I’m going to have to watch a little bit more in the movie,” Horford said after Wednesday’s game. “During the game, I didn’t feel like I was in good enough form, and Steph got some really clear eyes in there and it really hurt us.”
It’s hard to disagree.
Again, in each case, either White or Smart aggressively chased Curry around the screen. But that’s Stephen Curry — arguably the top 10 player of all time, and arguably the greatest shooter of all time. Each of these looks is too clean.
“They have a certain lineup for their length and size, and you don’t really see a lot of blitz because I don’t think it’s physically possible to run around like me and how many screens we can throw at them,” Curry said Thursday. “So they did a really good job for most of the game, trying to take the three and keep the body on the body and stuff like that.
“In the fourth quarter, we had a turnover in the first game in the fourth quarter and we kind of picked up the pace. Then they were very smart about who they were trying to get out of and clog the lane and send that extra body and focus, Honestly these models don’t really make sense, but they’re just super aggressive across the board.”
One can’t help but wonder if Curry — who shot 48.6 percent from 3-point range this series — believes the Celtics have done a “pretty solid job” with him because he likes to play against Horford all the extra space you gain from cover.
However, Curry’s woes are multifaceted. Horford could certainly jump higher, but that would require substitution, which isn’t much better than the Celtics’ fallback. Horford — despite his countless great things on the basketball court — can’t control Curry in isolation. Neither can Robert Williams. Curry is a one-of-a-kind, unassailable offensive genius who will punish big men who dare try to guard him.
Curry hinted that the Warriors have an answer to the Celtics’ aggressive defense.
“Obviously if we handle the ball and settle down, it can set a completely different tone for the fourth quarter,” Curry said. “Then, obviously, offense and defense are linked. You have to stop to keep the downward momentum.
“We didn’t do that in games one and three. It showed only 16 points in the fourth quarter or something like that. We obviously knew we had to get better.”
The Celtics also need to get better. They went 2-1 and earned that honor, but Curry can win basketball single-handedly, and the fact that the Celtics have yet to prove they can slow him down is worrying ahead of a crucial Game 4 .
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