The underappreciated NBA Finals matchup that has Golden State on the cusp of a title

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    Brian WindhorstESPN Senior Writer

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    • ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
    • Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
    • Author of two books

SAN FRANCISCO — The highlights of the Stephen Curry 3-pointers, Robert Williams’ blocked shots and, now, Andrew Wiggins‘ dunks, continue to run as the premier moments in the 2022 NBA Finals.

Celtics coach Ime Udoka keeps trying to tell everyone they’re missing the point.

The Golden State Warriors are one win from claiming another title after a 104-94 Game 5 victory over the Boston Celtics Monday night. The Warriors are not ahead 3-2 due to Boston’s relentless, expertly constructed No. The historic shooting wizard and his brothers-in-arms are not the only ones facing 1 defense. It is the exact opposite.

These Finals are being won at the other end of the court, the Warriors’ defense suffocating the Celtics and negating Boston’s game plan.

And that’s how fans who were pouring out of Chase Center Monday night explained it, too, after watching Curry go 0-for-9 on 3-pointers, the first time in four years and 233 games he didn’t make a triple. “I know that’s what people notice at first, consistently how I shoot the ball, how my shots are shot, that flair,” Curry stated. “I cannot control the narratives, but people talk about it. It’s more than that when you watch the game. … I believe we are [the]. 2 defense for a reason. “

Udoka, the Celtics’ first-year coach, did make some adjustments to his defensive game plan against Curry, namely having his big men crowd him more after screens and employing more switches to discourage the kind of shooting Curry had been displaying in the series.

But, he spent more time worrying about Boston’s offense before Game 5. He and his team will be flying back to the East Coast for Game 6, so he’ll be focusing more on these issues.

“Again,” Udoka said, repeating himself from last week when he was peppered with questions about Curry. “I don’t know if it wasn’t our defense or offensive struggles that caused us to lose tonight. “

When Curry scored 43 points in Game 4 … the Warriors had 107 as a team. Wiggins put up a sublime 26-point effort Monday, which probably could be classified as the best game of his pro career considering the stakes, and the Warriors scored … 104.

In Game 2, their other win, they scored 107. They are averaging 105 points per game in this series, 10 fewer than they scored in the Western Conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Golden State is shooting 45% in the series, which is good, but 7% less than the last round. The Celtics aren’t able to shut down the Warriors, but they are managing.

When the Celtics lost Game 2, they scored … 88 points. In Games 4 and 5, they didn’t crack 100.

The defensively powerful Celtics are about to lose a title…on offense.

The Warriors have dedicated themselves to playing rough — and not just because Draymond Green did some minor pushing during dead balls in the first few games. They are refusing to give Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics’ primary ball handlers, much space. Boston is frustrated by the crowding. The turnovers continue to pile up in Boston.

In Game 5, Boston had 18. In a stat that has become ubiquitous, the Celtics are now 1-7 when they turn it over 16 times or more in the postseason and 13-2 with fewer.

Every Boston player knows this; Udoka has displayed it in bold type on the scouting reports. They cannot help but keep going.

“We’re hard to beat when we don’t turn the ball over,” said Tatum, who is closing in on the playoff turnover record after adding four to his total Monday to make it 95 in 23 games. “We’re easy to beat when that happens. “

When the Celtics get sloppy on offense, they regularly look to the officials for answers. It doesn’t help them, regardless of how accurate the calls are. They were both given two technical fouls on Monday. One was from Udoka. He usually tries to get his players stop whining and to get back to defense when they don’t get a preferred whistle.

Udoka was nearly ejected in the fourth quarter when he pointed at referee Tony Brothers in anger and Brothers confronted him instead of tossing him.

“Probably something we shouldn’t do as much,” Udoka said of the complaining. “And we did too much. “

The Warriors were routinely in the top five in defensive efficiency between 2015 and 2017 when they won their first two titles with this core. But they finished outside the top 10 in three of the previous four seasons, even when they reached the Finals in 2018 and 2019. They rededicated themselves to it over the past year, with current defensive coordinator and newest Sacramento Kings head coach Mike Brown leading the effort. The defensive push includes improvements from Wiggins who has been a powerful stopper since being traded to Golden State and Curry who has transformed from a defensive weakness to one who can hold his own. This topic has been a constant discussion point throughout the season, but it has never been more important than these last two weeks.

The Curry matchup that the Celtics are having trouble with isn’t when he has possession, but when the Warriors’ defense is in place.

“They were trying to attack [Curry] over and over again and he held up pretty well,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Defense is the key to our game. “

Fatigue could be playing a role, too. The Celtics will need to win the title again after winning seven of the previous two rounds. In a telling stat, Tatum is shooting 56% in the first quarters during the Finals but just 24% in the fourth, including 2-of-10 over these past two losses. But Boston’s problems go deeper than that. The Celtics have struggled to execute offensively under pressure throughout the season. This is a problem that frustrates a team so close to its ultimate goal. It is dangerously close to becoming a fatal flaw.

“We’ll regroup and bounce back,” Tatum said, referencing a tone he has gone to as the Celtics have faced elimination games throughout this run. “I’m certain of it. “

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