Jayson Tatum and the Celtics need to figure out how to score inside the arc if they hope to win Game 3 and wrest control of the NBA Finals back from the Warriors.
If that statement sounds obvious — maybe a half-step above “If the Celtics hope to win the Finals, they need to win four games” — bear with us, because Games 1 and 2 were not particularly encouraging. The Warriors might not be quite as physical as the Heat and Bucks, but they were the NBA’s second-best defense during the regular season for a reason — a juggernaut led by Draymond Green, but made up of ever-shifting and endlessly clever defensive personnel .
On Monday, the Celtics were a catastrophic 9-for-34 (26.4 percent) from inside the arc during the first three quarters (the fourth quarter, of course, was extended garbage time) as the Warriors choked off every lane to the rim. Tellingly, the Celtics shot 10-for-19 (52.6 percent) from 3-point range in the first half, but just 17-for-44 (38.6) percent from the floor overall.
Tatum’s shooting line was a microcosm of the Celtics’ struggles—he finished with 28 points on 19 shots and was 6-for-9 from deep, but he shot just 2-for-10 inside the arc.
So what on earth happened? A few things. Here’s what the Warriors did to slow him down.
Build a wall/shell
Here’s a screenshot from play in the second half that ended in a brutally tough 3-pointer from the corner.
Andrew Wiggins can’t quite stay in front of Tatum consistently — Tatum has a quick first step and a lot of size on Wiggins, and he can turn the corner if given the time and space.
But the Warriors didn’t change their strategy from Game 1 all that much. When Tatum got the ball, he saw a crowd consistently. Warriors defenders recovered better, but every time Tatum sized up his defender 1-on-1, a sea of Warriors faces looked back at him. That’s what he faced against Wiggins above, and as the shot clock wound down, he was forced to make a relatively predictable play.
Imagine trying to go iso against this.
On that play, Tatum got the iso he wanted — a mid-post opportunity against Jordan Poole, who is a very poor defender — but once again, he was dissuaded from driving by the help defenders who moved in lockstep with him. The Celtics need to figure out how Tatum can comfortably attack matchups with Poole, because so much of their offense relies on Tatum and Jaylen Brown abusing mismatches, and Poole is as big a mismatch as exists on the Warriors’ roster (more on another mismatch in a minute).
A healthy dose of Gary Payton II and Andrew Wiggins
This one is pretty simple: Payton is a really good defender, and he made life difficult for both Tatum and Brown at times. He isn’t tall enough to defend Tatum entirely, but he can keep Tatum in front and make handling the ball more difficult, which in turn makes shots more difficult, which in turn drags down percentages for the Celtics’ best players. That’s a big boost for a Warriors team that saw Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and other generally solid defenders get cooked by Tatum (as a passer) and Brown (as a scorer) in Game 1.
Meanwhile, Wiggins played really well as a help defender, staying aware of Tatum’s whereabouts after he was screened off the Celtics’ star. Here, Tatum beat Kevon Looney after Looney switched a screen from Robert Williams, but Wiggins never took his eyes off Tatum and was ready to contest at the rim (also note the ever-aware Draymond Green helping on Williams at the dunker’s spot to prevent the lob).
The Warriors, like the Celtics, are a well-oiled machine defensively.
Swipe hard and hope for the best
The Warriors stole some notes from the Bucks and Heat in Game 2, swiping at the Celtics’ ball-handlers and spamming the steal button hoping the officials wouldn’t call a tight game. The Celtics (perhaps justifiably) made it clear postgame that they felt the whistles were one-sided, but the Warriors made sure to take advantage of a friendly whistle and two stars who can be loose with the ball at times.
Tatum in particular was baited into both driving a crowd and foul hunting, and neither strategy worked particularly well. All four of his turnovers could be attributed to one or the other — Steph Curry stripped him on the first, Kevon Looney managed to poke the ball free near half-court on the second, Nemanja Bjelica held his ground* on a drive for the third , and driving against Draymond Green triggered the fourth.
The Celtics need Tatum to do a lot, and he may have tried to do too much in Game 2. Walking that line — particularly given how badly the Celtics need him to be a playmaker — will be a crucial and complicated factor for Tatum in Game 3.
*may have fouled him
Let defensive stop Nemanja Bjelica loose
And finally, the wildcard: Slow-footed forward Nemanja Bjelica gave the Warriors surprisingly good minutes against Tatum, especially in the first half. The reason? For one thing, Bjelica can match Tatum’s size. For another, the Warriors gave ample help when Tatum beat Bjelica.
Again, note Wiggins in position to help when Tatum gets by Bjelica off the dribble.
(This screenshot makes Pritchard look more open than he was. Poole was in position to get back and defend his man if Tatum made the pass.)
That was the issue the Celtics ran into for much of Game 2 — the Warriors were keyed in on Tatum, but they were also significantly better prepared to deal with the options that open up when the Celtics face an opponent determined to stop their superstar.
So how do the Celtics free up Tatum? Ime Udoka noted after the game that turnovers — not for the first time in the postseason! — gashed the Celtics’ hopes, particularly in the second half.
“A lot of times it’s just not getting shots up or being a little hesitant instead of attacking the basket, looking for fouls a lot of times,” Udoka said. “That’s what got us in trouble. Had some of our early misses in the first half, and with their smaller lineups in there, we’ve got to attack the basket much more aggressively.”
That’s all fair, and the Celtics certainly can do a better job of simply getting shots up.
But freeing Tatum would do the Celtics a world of good. He can beat teams from 3-point range, but he probably can’t beat the Warriors consistently enough to win three of the next five games without rumbling downhill to the hoop.
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