The Warriors’ supporting cast responded fantastically to the rare off night for Steph Curry in Game 4, to take a 3-2 series lead over the Celtics. The two teams are back in action in Boston on Thursday night (9:00pm Eastern; 2:00am UK), with the Warriors looking to seal their fourth title in eight years, and the Celtics battling to force a decisive Game 7.
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For much of this postseason – and certainly these NBA Finals – the biggest question surrounding the Golden State Warriors has been whether the team offers enough offensive firepower to sufficiently support Steph Curry’s efforts, let alone offset a rough shooting night from the talismanic point guard. For much of these Finals, the answer has been, at best, an uncertain shrug. At the worst of times, the answer has been so resoundingly negative the question itself has felt completely rhetorical. In Games 4 and 5, however, the Warriors’ supporting cast – namely Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson – has provided a pair of perfectly timed affirmative responses.
Opinions vary on where it went wrong on with Andrew Wiggins time with the Minnesota Timberwolves. These days, the prevailing sense is that Wiggins was failed by an unstable organization, which surrounded him with (Karl-Anthony Towns excepted) underwhelming rosters. Others, however, will contend that, as the number #1 overall pick in the draft (in 2014), it was at least partially incumbent on him to elevate a lackluster roster and organization. There are valid cases to be made on either side.
What’s not up for debate is that Wiggins, who’s found comfort in his ideal role with the Golden State Warriors, is turning some of the most impressive performances of his career, in the most vital of games, on the sport’s biggest stage.
Despite Wiggins and Thompson not shooting terribly well (though they scored, respectively, 17 and 18 points, but were both 7-of-17 shooting) in Game 4 in Boston, both turned in stellar defensive performances to hold off the Celtics down the stretch, and Wiggins battled spectacularly for a career-high 16 rebounds In support of Steph Curry’s incandescent 43-point barrage. With the series back in San Francisco, the duo (along with the rest of the starting five and, for that matter, just about anyone who got on the floor for the Warriors) continued to play excellent defense, and Wiggins continued to hammer the boards with another 13 rebounds. This time, however, with Steph Curry making less than a third of his shots (7-of-22) missing all nine of his 3-pointers and winding up with just 16 points, the pair also picked up the offensive slack, making a combined 19 of 37 shots, for 47 massive points that helped the Warriors to a second straight 10-point win.
Also deserving a ton of credit is Gary Payton II, who’s miraculously returned from the gruesome broken elbow that he suffered in the second round against the Memphis Grizzlies. ‘GP2’ not only scored 15 points on just eight shots, but also grabbed five rebounds, had three huge steals and played fantastic defense, en route to a game-high +16 in 26 minutes of action. In a similar vein, a quick shout is due to the ultimate unsung hero, Kevon Looney, whose modest stat line (2 points, 4 rebounds) undersells his impact, as the Warriors outscored the Celtics by 12 points in his 17 minutes on the floor.
The Celtics, meanwhile, will be incredibly frustrated by the events of game five. Despite finally getting a strong offensive performance from Jayson Tatum, who made 10 of 20 shots (including 5-of-9 on 3-pointers) for 27 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out four assists, the C’s followed up a loss with a loss for the first time in this postseason. The culprits? Manifold.
Tatum’s strong showing was largely offset by a brutal night for Jaylen Brown, who had 18 points, but made just five of 18 shots (and missed all five of his 3-point attempts) and committed five turnovers in 44 minutes on the floor. Exacerbating the issue was another quiet performance by Al Horford, who scored just nine points and had a single assists (he did grab nine rebounds) in nearly 33 minutes of action and, along with Brown, posted a game-worst -19. Additionally, the bench unit that has proven so valuable and resilient for the Celtics throughout the playoffs – namely Derrick White, Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard – was completely ineffectual in Game 5, making just one of nine shots (zero of seven 3’s) for a combined four points in 42 minutes on the floor.
Finally, while this brutal offense performance was unfolding, the Celtics’ typically spectacular defense wasn’t able to pick up the slack. Boston allowed constant penetration into the lane, off of which the Warriors generated a steady stream easy looks around the basket. Equally maddening was their complete failure to force a Warriors team that’s usually quite loose with the ball into turnovers – they had just six in the game (while the Celtics turned the ball over 16 times themselves.)
Warriors predicted starting lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Wiggins, Otto Porter Jr., Draymond Green
Notable injuries: Andre Iguodala (knee; questionable); Otto Porter Jr. (foot; questionable); James Wiseman (knee; out)
Celtics predicted starting lineup: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Robert Williams
Notable injuries: Robert Williams (knee; day-to-day)
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On Thursday night, the series shifts back to Boston. The Warriors, behind the momentum of two massive wins – one on this very TD Garden floor to avoid a falling behind 3-1 in the series, the other overcoming an uncharacteristically brutal performance from Curry will like their chances have sealing a fourth NBA title in eight years. Naturally the Celtics will come out with effort and intensity, with a characteristically rabid Boston crowd in their corner.
However, over the course of the two frustrating losses, one of the Celtics’ pre-midseason-turnaround shortcomings – Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown try trying too hard to go it alone, and the team’s ball movement suffering as a result – has begun to reemerge. This moment, in front of a maniacal home crowd, is not likely to be one in which either (or both) choose to take a step back. With the season on the line, the pair could top 50 shot attempts between them.
The Warriors, meanwhile, can take comfort in the certainty of a Steph bounce-back game, the boost of Andrew Wiggins playing with the most intensity and toughness of his career and – call me a romantic if you must – the presence of one Klay Thompson, on the road, in a vital Game 6.