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Keep It Simple, Celtics: Why Boston’s Biggest Flaw Also Reveals Its Biggest NBA Finals Advantage Against Warriors

Keep It Simple, Celtics: Why Boston’s Biggest Flaw Also Reveals Its Biggest NBA Finals Advantage Against Warriors

BOSTON – Oh, how simple basketball seems, listening to the Boston Celtics talk. They lost seven playoff games, and after each one they said they just had to go their own way. They know exactly what the opposing team is trying to do, and they just need to be more specific: get the right reads, take care of the ball.

On Tuesday before Game 3, coach Ime Udoka answered his billionth question about turnovers. “The majority are too penetrating, playing in the crowd, as I say quite often. Don’t keep it simple.” In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a win, the Celtics got wide open 3s because their offense was “sharp and clean”. In Game 2, a loss, they committed 15 live turnovers because it was not.

One by one, players echoed that sentiment. No self-inflicted injuries, no problems.

In Game 3 on Wednesday, Boston committed seven live turnovers. And guess what happened: The Celtics won, just like they did after all of their other playoff losses. According to Jaylen Brown, who scored a team-high 17 of 27 in the first quarter, it was all about patience.

“We want to play fast in transition,” Brown said after the 116-100 win over the Golden State Warriors. “But when we get into the half court, (we want to) get our spacing right, take our time and find the guys open and be ready to make plays.”

On several occasions, Brown and Jayson Tatum, who had 26 points and nine assists, retreated nearly halfway to create a run to the rim. When the Boston stars attacked one-on-one, they were decisive, whether it was getting to the basket or finding a free teammate. They targeted mismatches, and even when they attacked one of Golden State’s strongest defenders, they knew help would be there early and they knew who would be open.

The Celtics had watched Draymond Green’s Cat-and-Mouse movie around the rim, and they knew their reads had to be better. Udoka pointed out that unlike the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat, their two previous opponents, the Warriors don’t have a massive shot blocker around the basket. Putting pressure on the rim, Boston forced Golden State to scramble, resulting in open shots and offensive rebounds. Marcus Smart bounced back from a lackluster performance with 24 points and five assists.

“It was just us being us,” Smart said. “Just keep driving the ball and try to find a good shot for our teammates and ourselves. This Warrior team is doing a really good job of helping each other on their defensive end. They’re going to force you to do the right play at every time, and if you don’t, they’re going to charge you. For us, it was just getting in the paint and doing the right game. We took what they gave us, and that’s it .

The beauty of Boston’s offense is that when it works, it’s that simple. Tatum, Brown and Smart are the top three playmakers, but everyone in the playoff rotation is at least a great connector. Once the first domino falls, the Celtics are likely to get a good look.

So what are we to make of the times when their offense doesn’t work, when their ballhandlers are picking up speed and their turnovers are piling up? Considering they are two wins away from a championship, perhaps the correct perspective is that sloppy stretches are just an ordinary flaw, but not a fatal one. Maybe the only thing that matters is how Boston handles them.

Five months ago, in the huddle as a 24-point lead evaporated at Madison Square Garden, Udoka urged the Celtics to “recover our composure” and “take care of the ball – it’s self-inflicted”. In the huddle on Wednesday at TD Garden, as an 18-point lead evaporated in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Udoka asked the team, according to longtime Celtics scribe Steve Bulpett, “Are you going to stop playing like assholes?” Same thing, really.

The difference is that, this time, Boston has regained its composure. Tatum recently cited that January 6 loss in New York as the low point of the season, and it has been repeatedly cited as the turning point. The Celtics were 18-21 then, and they went 33-10 afterwards, mostly because they cleaned up their act on offense. Tatum said after Game 3 that they are now at their best “when responding to difficult situations, when responding to teams going on the run”.

As frustrating as it can be to watch Boston make the same mistakes over and over again, look on the bright side: they don’t have to come up with new solutions! The Celtics had their worst offensive performance of the entire season (81.8 points per 100 possessions before garbage time, according to Cleaning The Glass) in Game 2, then followed it up with a dominant half-court performance, on the glass and in the paint, just doing what they said they had to do.

Boston’s biggest advantage against the Warriors is that he has clarity. The Celtics are confident they’ll be fine as long as they keep it simple, because they know they have a strength no team can match: a whole starting line-up full of great swappable defenders, plus a few more on the bench . The defense has led Boston through mediocre offensive games, and it doesn’t have to sacrifice spacing to put five elite defenders on the field. No other team in the league can say that.

For Golden State, things are more complicated. While everyone knows who the Celtics’ top seven players are, there’s not much separation when it comes to Warriors role players. The look of the rotation then becomes a matter of what the coaching staff feels is most important at any given time. They can go with Gary Payton II for defense or Jordan Poole for play, Kevon Looney for rebound or Nemanja Bjelica for shot.

“We were kind of patching holes tonight,” coach Steve Kerr said after Game 3. Other than a third-quarter streak in which Stephen Curry got on fire, “we don’t haven’t been able to find that two-way combination.”

Just about everyone needs to be looking for that kind of balance in the playoffs. Not Boston. That’s why, despite reacting better to losses than wins throughout these playoffs, Udoka believes there is no anxiety ahead of Game 4.

“I think we’ve seen what makes us successful,” Udoka said.

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