Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Warriors vs. Celtics: Steve Kerr sitting Stephen Curry to end third quarter might’ve cost Golden State Game 3

Let’s say this upfront: The Boston Celtics are a better team than the Golden State Warriors. I picked the Celtics to win the series at the start because they have an advantage, albeit a slight one in some cases, in nearly every facet of the game. Defensively, they are bigger and more athletic, and that goes double for the offensive end, where they bludgeoned the Warriors with a 33-percent offensive rebound rate and a 26-point disparity in paint scoring in their Game 3 victory. 

The Celtics have multiple mismatches to seek out against smaller Golden State defenders, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can exploit, and are exploiting, the Warriors’ inability to stay in front of them. They get downhill at scoring themselves or draw help and kick to open 3-point shooters. It’s simple stuff, and when the Celtics keep it that way, which is to say don’t get too fancy and start beating themselves with sloppy turnovers and ill-advised shots, they’ve shown they have a pretty firm grip on this matchup. 

Golden State basically has one horse to ride. 

His name is Stephen Curry

Curry has been the best player in this series. He’s looked like his old self, banging shots from all over the court as the Warriors have gone almost exclusively to pick-and-roll offense to ride his hot hand and not mess with Boston’s off-ball switching defense. Curry is delivering, and he was doing it again in the third quarter on Wednesday when Golden State turned a 12-point halftime deficit into a one-point lead in a little more than eight minutes. 

It was a quintessential Curry flurry. Boston was reeling as the two-time MVP went for 15 points on 4-of-5 3-point shooting over those eight minutes before Steve Kerr made the decision to bench him with 2:53 remaining in the third. There were two reasons Kerr did it: First, he wanted to give Curry a breather so he could play the whole fourth quarter. Second, Curry had four fouls and Kerr didn’t want to chance him picking up his fifth. 

You won’t hear much about this decision. It wasn’t even brought up in the postgame pressers. But I’m of the opinion that it was the wrong move, so much so that it just might’ve cost Golden State the game. 

Of course, I can’t say that for sure. When Curry went to the bench, the Warriors were down two, and they only lost two points over the final 2:53 to begin the fourth quarter down four. But everything about the decision — protecting Curry against a fifth foul, giving him rest even though he’d only played 27 minutes to that point — was conservative, and it cooled the one upper hand Golden State has to play in this series. 

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Again, over the long haul, Boston has the advantage almost everywhere. But Curry being on a heater can erase all that, and he was doing exactly that when Kerr threw water on the fire. There is no question Boston was happy to see Curry go to the bench, and any time you’re doing something that your opponent wants you to do, you’re not doing the right thing. 

The way Curry had it going, there’s a real chance the Warriors, rather than being down four, could’ve gone into the fourth quarter up six or eight. Mentally, that’s an entirely different situation for both sides. Also, you can’t just cool a hot shooter off and expect him to heat right back up three game minutes later. Curry opened the fourth quarter with a missed 3 and three turnovers, and the Warriors were down nine inside the first two minutes of the quarter.

Boston never looked back. 

This series is being discussed as pretty evenly matched, but increasingly this doesn’t appear to be the case. The Warriors are playing uphill. Standing next to the Celtics, they’re small and slow. And when you’re trying to win a fight against a bigger, faster opponent, it becomes imperative that you land a big blow when and if you get the chance. 

The Warriors had that chance to end the third quarter, when they sat Curry, and to start the fourth, when they sat Klay Thompson — who was also feeling it with three third-quarter 3s — until the nine-minute mark. 

That’s six total minutes, at the most pivotal juncture of the game, without the red-hot splash brothers on the court together. When the splash bros had it going at the same time, the Warriors had all the momentum. The Celtics were on the ropes. And Kerr opted to play it safe and let them off. 

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