By Ric Bucher
FOX Sports NBA Writer
There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Which side of that line the Golden State Warriors are on is going to be revealed Sunday evening in Game 2 of the 2022 NBA Finals.
Despite being thoroughly outplayed down the stretch of Game 1 on their home floor and falling behind 1-0 in the best-of-seven series against the Boston Celtics, the Warriors spoke as if it was a rounding error. A blip on the radar. A momentary detour on their way to a fourth title in the last eight years.
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One after another, their vaunted core of three-time champions — Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson — has reminded everyone of their vast Finals experience and expressed certainty the answer to winning Game 2 is somewhere in the catalog of previous challenges met and overcome.
“It’s not ideal, but I believe in who we are and how we deal with adversity. … This series is just getting started,” Curry said.
“We’ll be fine,” Green said.
“It’s first to four (wins), not first to one, and we all have been through situations like this,” Thompson said.
Well, not exactly.
If there was anything consistent about their previous five runs to the Finals, it was establishing their superiority right out of the gate. In their first run to a title, they never lost the first game of a series. In 2016, it only happened once. It never happened in 2017. Nor 2018. And only once in 2019.
That was also the only time they dropped Game 1 in the Finals. And we know how that turned out — the Toronto Raptors prevailed in six games. And even that was different because that Game 1 was in Toronto, not on the Warriors’ home floor.
The “we all” in Thompson’s statement isn’t quite accurate, either. There are eight players on the current roster who did not play against the Raptors and have no previous experience in the Finals.
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While acknowledging all that, Green expressed a certainty the Warriors will find the necessary answers.
“You get a chance to do something else, do it in a different way, embrace the challenge,” he said. “We’ve always embraced challenges. It’s no different. We’ll embrace this one. So, no, it’s not a hit to the confidence at all, not one bit.”
I’ve been around the Warriors as much as any team since their transformation into a championship-caliber organization began in 2012 under coach Mark Jackson and GM Bob Myers. I credit a good part of that transformation to their sharp self-awareness and willingness to take an honest assessment of who and what they are. They didn’t pretend all was well when it wasn’t. They didn’t judge themselves by the scoreboard or the standings. They set their own standards and acknowledged when they weren’t meeting them.
It wasn’t always that way with the franchise. In fact, it was quite the opposite. There were years upon years of sugar-coating or exaggerating who they were and what they had.
Jackson deserves credit for changing that as much as anyone. He came in with the mantra, “We’re not going to be the same old Warriors.” He didn’t care who he had to call out, he did it.
Curry and Green embraced the approach and have been its standard-bearers. The Warriors replaced Jackson with people who maintained that approach. Steve Kerr and assistant coach Ron Adams, to name two. I’ll never forget Adams telling me in the midst of that run to a 73-9 record that he didn’t like the way they were playing, they were developing bad habits that he feared would eventually cost them. That came to bear in the series with Oklahoma City. By all rights they should’ve never made it to the Finals that year, falling behind 3-1 to the Thunder. That has been overlooked in the wake of them blowing their own 3-1 lead in the Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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Curry, asked what has been the source of the Warriors’ previous success after setbacks, said it was, “just being honest about what went wrong and holding each other accountable.” He’s right. Which is why I’m not used to hearing the kind of remarks I’ve heard the last few days.
It’s not just Klay inaccurately suggesting the Warriors have been in their current situation before. There was also Draymond saying, “We pretty much dominated the game for the first 41, 42 minutes.” Really? How could the Celtics lead by two at halftime if that were true? Or the score be tied, 103-all, with five minutes to go?
There was also the insinuation made by both Thompson and Green that the Celtics were not only incredible from 3-point range but that the players making those 3s are not likely to make them again, at least not at the same clip. Which is partly true. It’s hard to imagine Al Horford (6-for-8), Marcus Smart (4-for-7), Derrick White (5-for-8) and Payton Pritchard (2-for-3) all going off like that again.
As a team the Celtics shot a robust 51% from beyond the arc. But all that doesn’t take into account that three of their most prolific 3-point shooters were non-factors. Jayson Tatum missed four of his five attempts. Jaylen Brown missed six of his eight. Grant Williams, whose 3-point shooting was a huge factor in every previous series, missed his only attempt and was scoreless in Game 1.
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It’s not as if the Warriors shot the 3 poorly themselves. Or didn’t receive outsized contributions from complementary players as well. Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica and Andre Iguodala were a combined 6-for-8. As a team, the Warriors made 19 3s, only two fewer overall than the Celtics and shot a very respectable 42 percent, an outstanding clip considering Boston had previously held their postseason opponents closer to 30 percent, the third-best mark of all playoff teams, trailing only Philadelphia and New Orleans. The Warriors have not been nearly as good in the postseason, ranking 12th among the 16 playoff teams in opponent’s 3-point percentage.
It wasn’t just beyond the arc that Boston found success, either. They shot 50% inside it as well and got into the paint at will — 34 of their 44 two-point shots came from close range, and they made 14 of them. The Warriors didn’t get into the paint as much and didn’t score as well. If there’s a number that could be hard to replicate for either team, it’s the Warriors shooting 50% on mid-range jumpers, making five of 10.
What no one, least of all the team’s vaunted core, is willing to acknowledge is that maybe the heart of this team isn’t the same. The last time the Warriors were in the Finals, Klay and Draymond were not just their best defenders, they were two of the best in the league. Klay was a lethal scorer, open or guarded, and Green either created easy buckets or finished them. That wasn’t the case in Game 1 — Brown sized up Klay and attacked him at will. Green was solid on defense but a clear detriment on offense, not just going 2-for-12 but only collecting five assists with three turnovers.
Iguodala was once right there with Thompson and Green as a stalwart defender. He was remarkably effective for someone who hadn’t played in five weeks because of an assortment of injuries, but it was mostly at the offensive end, where he made three of four shots and dished out three assists in 12 minutes. Despite that super efficiency, he finished a minus-six. In his first stint in the game, he tried to defend Tatum at the rim on a fast break and conceded the layup despite fouling him for an and-one.
None of this, by the way, was a revelation to the Celtics. Someone from the organization told me an hour before the game that they were not worried about finding players they could target to get what they wanted offensively. Their concern was not letting the Warriors blitz them offensively and get on one of their furious scoring stretches that would create a deficit too big to overcome.
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The Warriors threatened several times to do exactly that, holding double-digit leads in the second, third and fourth quarters. But none grew larger than 15. In today’s NBA, that’s equivalent to an eight-point lead back before nearly half the shots taken in a game were 3-pointers and teams became capable of making damn near half of those.
Finally, there’s the Jordan Poole issue. I stood courtside watching him warm up and while he was clearly amped up, his shot looked good, especially from long range. His ability to get into the paint has been a lethal weapon for the Warriors throughout these playoffs, but he never got to the rim once in Game 1, made only one of his four 3s and missed his only shot in the paint. More importantly, he was invisible on defense, finishing with the worst plus-minus of any player in the game, minus-19.
That might just be the biggest issue the Warriors face. Poole’s offense has been instrumental in creating space for Steph and Klay. Up until now, Warriors opponents didn’t have enough quality defenders, especially around the rim, to keep Steph, Klay and Poole at bay. The Celtics do.
There was a stretch midway through the fourth quarter when the Warriors displayed their trademark offense. Their four horsemen — Klay, Steph, Iguodala and Draymond — were on the floor together and the ball and bodies were moving with that crazy Warriors’ trademark speed and precision. Iguodala cut down the baseline and took a feed from Draymond for a dunk. Steph found Klay for a 3. Iguodala returned the favor and found Draymond for a layup. Curry drilled a mid-range jumper.
But this is what was different: The Celtics answered every one of them. The Warriors started that stretch with a five-point lead and when it was over, the lead had been reduced to four. A White 3-pointer then sliced it to one. A nervous murmur rose from the Chase Center crowd. Curry made another two-pointer, but White answered with another 3 and the game was tied at 103-all.
Over the final five minutes, the Celtics outscored the Warriors 17-5 and that included a relatively meaningless 3-pointer by Bjelica with 16 seconds left and the outcome decided. The Celtics only missed four shots, and Horford cleaned up one of them with an offensive rebound, setting up Smart for a 3. Boston has just three scoreless possessions. The Warriors, over the same span, had eight.
The Warriors are sure to make adjustments. The Celtics have been notorious throughout these playoffs for flexing their capabilities and then going flat in the very next contest. The series has by no means been decided.
Closing a series against a team with championship experience is a far greater challenge than upsetting them in Game 1. If Boston displays the same carelessness they did against the Heat, the Warriors are more than capable of making them pay and pay dearly.
But for all the talk by the Warriors that they’ve faced and met challenges many times before, this is different. If the Warriors are truly honest with themselves, they’ve never been in this situation before. Not in the Finals. And not with a team that has as many questions to answer as this one.
Confident or arrogant? We’re about to find out.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds,” the story of NBA center Yao Ming. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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