In basketball, physicality is often akin to tug of war. Both
sides are putting forth all their might, but one side has to topple
the other into exhaustion — that’s the nature of things. It doesn’t
mean one party didn’t try as hard as the other. Sometimes, previous
battles leave a deeper impact for one more than the other, and the
next game is swiftly decided.
Amid these NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics and Golden State
Warriors are engaged in a tug of war of physicality.
Game 1 went to Boston, who stymied Golden State’s off-ball
attack and applied its size to generate paint touches or open looks
Game 2 went to Golden State, who pressured Boston on the catch,
extended its offense far away from the rim and sprung open shooters
with hard-nosed picks.
Game 3 went to Boston, who chiseled itself into a 116-100
victory and snagged a 2-1 series lead, halfway from its first title
in 14 seasons.
Physicality is a broad term, one that’s been present through
each of the first three Finals games. When teams say the opponent
was more physical, that may sound cliche and coy, but there are
nuances behind the ambiguity that provide a road map toward finer
details. They reveal themselves through trends, statistics and
Among those concepts for the Celtics in Game 3 was a revival of
consistent driving and interior scoring. In their Game 2 loss, per
NBA.com, they registered just 6 attempts in the restricted area
(7.5% frequency), talled 47 drives and shot 15-of-43 (34.9%) on
twos. On Wednesday, they tallied 26 attempts at the rim (29.2%
frequency), recorded 61 drives and shot 30-of-54 (55.6%) on
The leading proponents behind those contrasts were Jayson Tatum,
Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, who combined for 48 of the 61
drives, three days after logging just 27.
Boston wields a notable strength advantage on the perimeter over
the Warriors, whose point-of-attack defense is susceptible to
breakdowns. Limiting dribble penetration stems from Golden State's
synergistic help and active rotations, not a cast of staunch
isolation stoppers. The Celtics exploited that on Wednesday, with
Andrew Wiggins, Stephen Curry and Otto Porter Jr. regularly the
targets of this approach.
Whether the edge stemmed from speed, strength or a marriage of
the two, Boston ball-handlers dependably fashioned successful
downhill forays. Improved spacing compared to Game 2 aided their
efforts; multiple teammates were no longer parked in the lane or
cutting inside on drives. Robert Williams III also camped a bit
farther from the hoop rather than directly in the dunker spot, and
floated around to occupy help defenders.
The Celtics did well to move both Kevon Looney and/or Draymond
Green away from the hoop during their stints, which left Golden
State incapable of properly enforcing the paint. While Klay
Thompson had some noteworthy moments of weak-side rim-protection in
Game 2, those two bigs are the lone rotation players who reliably
protect the basket for the Warriors. They were often not in
position to do so during Game 3.
Contributing to Boston’s massively-heightened rim frequency was
Williams III playing 26 minutes, his most of the series, and nearly
double his 14 minutes in Game 2. Aside from a few riveting moments
in the second half of Game 1, Williams’ inaugural Finals have been
headlined by troubles: poor
pick-and-roll coverage, erratic decision-making as a helper and a
struggle to discern his optimal defensive assignment.
Game 3 was easily his finest of the three thus far, notching 7
total steals/blocks, collecting 10 boards and scoring 8 points on 5
shots. His presence is indispensable for the Celtics. They need to
play him and surf through the waves of frustration. That’s why him
being good feels imperative. Nobody else on the roster provides
vertical spacing as a lob threat or inhabits the offensive glass
When he survives defensively, as he did Wednesday, he poses
grand issues for Golden State as an interior release valve and
putback option. His length and explosiveness can overwhelm the
Warriors’ undersized front line. Boston producing paint touches
with Williams in the dunker spot has left Golden State in
conflicting situations, unsure of whether to help on the drive and
leave him open or stay back and risk an easy finish. The dimensions
of his skill set are novel and critical.
In the first half, the Celtics scored 68 of their 116 points and
posted a sterling 136.0 Offensive Rating. Renewed driving profits
were the headlining component, but they also functioned at a
quicker pace. During the first two games, they averaged 95.5
possessions per night, while Thursday’s first half saw the pace
rise to 100.
Pushing the tempo to force cross-matches, typically with Al
Horford against smaller defenders, seemed to be an emphasis — even
if it was mostly confined to the opening 24 minutes. Horford’s
post-ups in the half-court throughout Game 2 were pretty fruitless.
So, quick duck-ins prior to the defense organizing itself became
the counter, and it yielded some welcomed possessions.
Clearly, Boston wants to deploy Horford’s size in the paint. It
merely needed a shrewder tactic. Empty-corner sets initiated early
in the clock to highlight the size discrepancy between these clubs
were also periodically featured.
Boston winning the dance of physicality commenced almost
immediately. Smart’s screening was a weapon much of the night,
beginning with a gnarly pick on Wiggins during its first offensive
possession. The pick allowed Tatum to feed him and induced a shoddy
stunt from Thompson, enabling Brown to knock down an open
All night, the Celtics seemed to shrug off Golden State’s
potentially imposing pressure and spur defensive rotations. Smart’s
first crunching screen would not be his last, either. Boston spun
its knack for dishing out and handling physicality into offensive
Physicality on its own is not inherently valuable. It has to do
something and mean something; it needs purpose. The Celtics’
physicality very much had purpose in Game 3.
(Side note: The last Tatum bucket in that montage is filthy
stuff. Looney tries to disrupt his handle multiple times and funnel
him to Jordan Poole’s help on the left wing. But Tatum spins away
from all of it, keeps the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder on his hip and
converts a contested layup. The way he's navigated physicality this
season has taken a vital jump and really stands out over the past
Much like Golden State’s Game 2 offensive flurry, a combination
of adjustments and uncharacteristic breakdowns from a stingy
defense was responsible for the Celtics’ 116 points. On both
occasions, the former was more salient, though the latter remained
Defense is a wildly fickle undertaking. One slight step in the
wrong direction or incorrect shift of body weight can radicalize
everything. A slightly improper angle around a screen or to cut off
a drive reorients the possession. The same goes for how physicality
The best defenses minimize those events, but these Finals are
underscoring that even elite units are susceptible to such ebbs and
flows. Both teams embrace physicality. One isn’t running away with
the mantle of “more physical.” It’s been a fluid title.
For now, thanks to refined driving, spacing and screening,
Boston’s the current keeper of that fluid title.