The Golden State Warriors avoided putting themselves in an almost impossible situation: dropping both games at home and having to somehow keep their championship hopes alive on the road.
It didn’t always look promising, especially early as the Boston Celtics picked up where they left off in the decisive fourth quarter of Game 1 by jumping out to an early lead in Game 2.
Then the Warriors shifted the momentum on the defensive end as they harassed the Celtics into 11 first-half turnovers (to five by Golden State), turning them into 18 points. That helped keep Golden State in the driver’s seat in the first half before blowing out Boston with a 35-14 third quarter and rolling to a 107-88 win to send the series back to Massachusetts tied 1-1.
Here are some takeaways from Game 2:
It seems absurd that Stephen Curry would have anything to prove at this stage of his career. He’s won three titles, and has led the Warriors to six Finals in eight years. He’s won two MVPs and in many ways helped reinvent the sport — proving that pushing the envelope on weaponizing three-point shooting was a winning strategy, rather than some kind of gimmick.
He’s among the very best players to have ever stepped on an NBA floor. But if he has a gap in his resume it’s that he’s never been a Finals MVP. Andre Iguodala won the award in 2015 for his defense on LeBron James, and Kevin Durant won it for Golden State in 2017 and 2018.
It’s not like Curry has shrunk in the spotlight – coming into this series he had averaged 26.5 points, 6.2 assists and 5.7 rebounds in 28 Finals games – but in the very early stages of his sixth Finals, he’s signaling that he’s clearing some space on his trophy shelf.
After his 34-5-5 outing in Game 1, Curry stepped on the gas in Game 2. He scraped and clawed for 10 points in the opening quarter to keep the Warriors attached after a strong Celtics start. And he kept going from there, leading Golden State’s third-quarter explosion with 14 points on 4-of-9 shooting on his way to a game-high 29 points.
“Steph was breathtaking in that third quarter,” said Warrior head coach Steve Kerr. “The guy is amazing. He keeps working on his game, his conditioning, year after year, it’s a pleasure to watch.”
Battle of the role players
The Celtics held the advantage in Game 1 with Derrick White, Robert Williams and even Al Horford – a role player at this stage of his career – delivering high-level performances as Boston took early control of the series. But in Game 2 it was the Warriors supporting cast that stepped up.
The most noticeable was Jordan Poole who was 2-of-7 and minus-9 in Game 1 but came off the bench in Game 2 with 17 points while shooting 5-of-9 from three, including a pair of deep triples to close the third quarter — one of them a 40-footer at the buzzer to close the third that ignited the Chase Center crowd.
But Poole was joined by Kevon Looney who had just four points on 1-of-4 shooting in Game 1, but was a perfect 6-of-6 from the floor in Game 2 with seven rebounds and three steals.
The Warriors also benefitted from Gary Payton II returning to the lineup after he missed all of the Conference Finals and Game 1 with a fractured elbow suffered against the Memphis Grizzlies. The defensive sparkplug chipped in seven points and three assists on three shots in 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, the Celtics got just six points combined from Horford, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams.
Tatum’s scoring returns, but he didn’t have help
Did Jayson Tatum just come out flat offensively in Game 1 or did the Warriors maybe have his number after the Celtics star shot just 3-of-17 from the floor, albeit with 13 assists?
Turns out that maybe Tatum had more to do with his slow start to the series than anything the Warriors did.
“I’m certain that they don’t want me to just play one-on-one and things like that. Show a crowd, bring help and things like that,” Tatum said of the Warriors’ game plan in Game 1.
“I feel like I did get a lot of open looks just from kick-outs and things like that but I’m sure part of the game plan, making me a playmaker and not letting me be comfortable, it’s just something I feel like every team has more or less been doing throughout the playoffs. So it’s not necessarily something new.”
This time around Tatum knocked down those open looks and created some looks on his own. He had 21 points in the first half and was 5-of-7 from deep. He had another three and added seven more points in the third quarter, even as the Warriors were on the verge of blowing Boston out.
But unlike in Game 1, when Tatum was able to turn his shooting struggles and the Warriors’ determination to sell out on him defensively into easy offense for his teammates, that wasn’t the case in Game 2. Tatum had just three assists through the first three quarters compared with four turnovers, and he didn’t have anyone joining him on his offensive binge like he did in Game 1.
Draymond Green engaged
An athlete being accountable is a standard menu item in the playoffs, but Green – not surprisingly – holds himself to a high standard and does it loudly.
There were a lot of culprits in the Warriors turning a 15-point third-quarter lead into a blowout loss in Game 1, but Green was certainly one of them. Even by his standards he was a non-threat on offense, his 2-of-12 line filled with clanged wide-open jumpers and rushed lay-up attempts.
Meanwhile Boston’s Horford – Green’s primary defensive assignment – went off in Game 1, with 26 points on 12 shots.
“I think accountability in life is important in anything, not just basketball,” said Green in advance of Game 2 night. “… That’s what I’ve always been taught my entire life, and for me, I understand that ultimately, if I play well, we win. And if I don’t, we still can, but if I do, we win. So that falls on me.”
Green walked the talk in Game 2. He came with a jolt: tying up Horford above the three-point line on the game’s opening play, sliding into the paint to break up a lob to Celtics big Williams and later made a steal sinking into the paint to help on Tatum.
He kept the pace for most of the game, and while the volume of his contribution on offense wasn’t all that high, the quality was there. He only took three shots, making two, but scored nine points thanks to seven trips to the free-throw line, while adding seven assists.
But it’s his defense that made him a difference-maker. Green erased Horford, helping limit the Celtics veteran to two points on four shots through the first three quarters, a complete turnaround from Game 1. Otherwise, he was in the faces of seemingly every Celtic that took the floor, getting under their skin and challenging the referees to keep order.
“It was pretty obvious, just our level of strength and physicality was ramped up quite a bit, and it had to be,” said Kerr. “We knew we had to come with a much better focus and sense of aggression, and I thought that started right from the beginning. Draymond played a huge role in that.”
Are the Splash Brothers a thing anymore?
Curry is doing his thing, but running mate Klay Thompson is suddenly looking a long way removed from his pre-injury form.
Toronto Raptors fans know it well. Thompson was on his way to forcing a Game 7 during the 2019 Finals before he blew out his ACL in a collision with then-Raptor Danny Green in Game 6. Thompson had 30 points on 12 shots in 31 minutes – just another in a list of Game 6 performances by the Warriors veteran, the latest his 30-point outing against Memphis in the second round.
But after missing one full season due to his knee injury and another due to an Achilles tear he suffered on the eve of the 2020-21 season, his ability to take over games ebbs and flows. The Celtics didn’t give the 32-year-old an inch in Game 1 and Thompson struggled accordingly, with just 15 points in 38 minutes. He was also torched repeatedly in the fourth quarter.
Heading into Game 2, the three-time champion was adamant: he wasn’t having it.
“I need to make more shots. I need to take more shots. I need to get more stops,” he said. “I just need to be myself. Yeah, that would be one of the greatest to ever shoot it, so I’ll rely on that.”
But things didn’t get any easier for Thompson. He was 1-of-8 in the first half, his only bucket a tough, contested, fadeaway two off the dribble, and finished 4-of-19. The Celtics ran him off the three-point line, confident he couldn’t hurt them off the bounce, and they were right. Even as the Warriors were able to blow the game open in the third quarter, it was Curry going off while Thompson remained mostly silent.
The Warriors’ shooting guard is right – he’s one of the best shooters of all time. The only players in the NBA history to average at least three triples made per game for their career are Thompson and Curry. But for the moment the Warriors are pushing for their fourth title in spite of Thompson, rather than because of him.