An NBA Finals game unlike any other

I have been writing about the NBA Playoffs for a long time. In my pre-Pounding the Rock days, I wrote what I called a Fake Blog — because it was just an email I sent to guys I played ball with. In one of those Fake Blogs, I wrote about the upcoming 2013 Western Conference Finals match-up between OKC and the Spurs, comparing the Thunder’s outstanding young sixth man to the San Antonio’s not-as-young sixth man:

OKC’s outstanding young off-guard is James Harden — and his game is a spitting image of my man Manu Ginobili’s. Both players are left-handed, attack the rim with abandon, comfortably step back to shoot the three, and are such good passers that they often play point guard when the All-Star point guard on the team is out of the game.

Harden is no longer young, and Manu is retired. Unlike Manu, who never gained a pound, Harden has gained several. You know the expression — he/she weighs “two bills”. Present day Harden probably weighs “two Manus”.

All this is by way of saying that I have been writing about the NBA playoffs long enough that I remember when the currently ball-stopping-and-heavy version of Harden could be compared with My Man Manu outside of a joke. In all that time, I have never seen an NBA playoff game quite like Game 1 between the Celtics and the Warriors. For three quarters, it toggled between a comfortable win for the Warriors and a close game that the home-court veteran Warriors would pull out at the end. At the end of the third quarter, it looked more like the former, as the Warriors led by 12. Not only that, they were at home, better rested, had no one in foul trouble or injured, and had bottled up the Celtics best player Jason Tatum.

On the other bench, I am sure Celtic Coach Ime Udoka was saying things like “one bucket at a time, we can’t make it up all at once” — if he did, that was probably the only incorrect thing he said all night . Indeed, no one could have predicted what happened next. The Celtics made it up all at once by sinking their next seven (7!) three-pointers, caught the Warriors at 103 and just kept pouring it on. The game was effectively over with more than four minutes left.

In the fourth quarter, the Celtics shot 15-for-22 (68.2%) from the field, including 9-for-12 on threes. Five Celtics made threes, with Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and Marcus Smart each making two. Six of the the fourth-quarter three-pointers came during a three minute stretch in which they scored twenty (20!) points on seven possessions, turning a five-point deficit with 7:54 remaining into a six-point lead with 4:49 to go.

People often forget the other end of the floor when a team goes on a run. When a team outscores an opponent 17 – 0 as the Celtics did, that means they are throwing a shut-out on the other end. Perhaps even more remarkable than the 40 points the Celtics scored in the fourth, they held a full-strength Warriors squad to only 16. All of which led to the biggest fourth quarter margin (24 points) in NBA Finals history. And that history goes back much farther than I have been writing about the NBA playoffs.

Other thoughts:

  • My favorite non-injured ex-Spur Derrick White had a coming out party for a national audience. The Univ. of Colorado Buffalo alum scored 21 points, 5 of 8 from three, played his usual stellar defense, and led all players with a plus 25 while on the floor. Derrick was so great that national publications like The Athletic devoted entire articles to him, like this one, which ended with this quote from Jaylen Brown:

“Certain people get up for moments, have the ability to outplay the scouting report, just can flat-out hoop,” Brown said. “Credit to D-White, man. He can ball.”

  • These playoffs have been all about teams hunting out favorable match-ups on offense, targeting the other team’s weaker defenders. The Celtics don’t play any below-average defenders, and therefore don’t have anyone to target. The Warriors do.
  • On the flip side, the Warriors have several players who are not threats to score on offense, including two of their starters, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney. However, this does not mean the defense can sag off those guys when they have the ball. If the defense plays far off either Green or Looney, they simply set a screen for a shooter (normally Steph Curry) who then curls off the screen wide-open to splash a three. After Curry’s amazing first quarter (six threes, 21 points), the Celtics defenders on Green and Looney stopped laying off them, which in turn led to far fewer open looks for the Warriors’ shooters. As a result, Curry made only one more three-pointer the rest of the game.
  • In my pre-playoff piece, I highlighted Looney’s offensive rebounding against the Mavs, and predicted he wouldn’t get as many against the bigger and more talented Celtic defenders. At least for Game One, I was wrong. Looney had six offensive boards, and each one led to a Warriors basket. Indeed, all but one resulted in an immediate score, primarily on a pass to a Warriors shooter who then drained the shot. On the one that didn’t lead directly to a Warriors’ basket, Looney got a second offensive board on the missed shot, and he then scored himself. Remarkable.
  • I really missed Jeff Van Gundy in this game because his absence led to twice as much Mark Jackson talking. Near the end of the third quarter, Jackson had this to say: ”If you told me Andrew Wiggins is outplaying Jason Tatum, I would tell you that the Celtics don’t have a chance. That doesn’t mean they can’t win.” So what does it mean, Mark? [Editor’s Note: It must mean that a team without a chance can win! – JRW]

On behalf of all of us who will be watching Game Two on Sunday, I hope Van Gundy recovers quickly.

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