BOSTON — It was not a rhetorical question, though it may have seemed like one. As the Celtics prepared Friday morning to face the Golden State Warriors that night, coach Doc Rivers wondered aloud, “How many times have they been zoned?”
The answer was about what one would expect against a squad like the Warriors, who have arguably the league’s top shooting backcourt in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Not surprisingly, assistant coach Kevin Eastman found, the Warriors had faced a zone defense a sum of 70 minutes this entire season. Defending an excellent shooting team with a zone, after all, is almost always a bad idea.
In the spirit of genius moves being spurred by necessity, the Warriors forced Rivers’ hand and he responded with a masterstroke. With Avery Bradley picking up his fifth foul early in the third quarter and Courtney Lee dealing with foul trouble of his own, Rivers essentially tossed the zone out on the court and told the Warriors: Solve this.
They could not. Curry, fresh off a 54-point performance in Madison Square Garden, was held to 6-of-22 shooting overall and missed eight of his 11 attempts from 3-point territory. Thompson was 7-for-19 from the field and 1-for-7 beyond the arc. All together the Warriors shot 34 percent against the Celtics, clanging their way to a 94-86 defeat at TD Garden.
“It was a different look,” Kevin Garnett said of the zone. “Against good shooting teams, you’ve got to be very, very talkative when you go zone. I was kind of wary of it, but it was a different look. I thought it was a great call on Doc’s part. He and [assistant coach] Mike [Longabardi] made a great call and it slowed them down. I thought they went to a more individual game and that played in our favor.”
Paul Pierce led all scorers with 26 points and Garnett battled for 13 boards against David Lee, a relentless glass-cleaner who grabbed 19 rebounds in the loss. Jeff Green came off the bench for 18 points, bouncing back (albeit not literally) after crashing hard to the floor on a baseline drive in the third quarter.
The star of the game was the zone defense, however, and the full team effort it took to stymie the league’s best 3-point shooting team.
The mark of a truly effective defense is not how opposing players shoot against contested shots. Any contested shot, by its nature, it hard to make. Really good defenses cause so much discomfort that shooters look uncertain even taking wide-open shots for fear that some defender might be closing in from where they least expect it. When Curry airballed an uncontested three in the second half, it was clear Rivers had him.
“I thought he pushed it quick,” Rivers said. “I mean, he was just trying to get it out of his hands.”
As usual, the man anchoring the back line was the key to the whole defense. Garnett is always the most communicative player on the floor, but in the zone his constant stream of instructions was vital. Unlike college zones, wherein inexperienced defenders either sit back on their heels or over-pursue for steals — either case providing open looks for the offense — the Celtics’ zone on Friday attacked Curry and Thompson without opening seams for Golden State to make plays.
“We brought the physicality,” Garnett said. “We were the aggressors throughout the game. They went on runs, but when they did we cut the runs short. We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but I thought defensively we were very sound, very firm. This team, if you let them run around, set picks, get their guys open, they can make shots. I thought we did a good job of playing angles and getting out and being firm for 48 minutes.
This game was always going to be intriguing to watch. In ideal circumstances, the Celtics are perfectly equipped to contend with a team like the Warriors. Bradley and Lee might be the only pair of starting guards who can counter Curry and Thompson’s offensive prowess with defensive excellence of their own.
Yet under circumstances that were far less than ideal, the personnel took a back seat to the scheme. And a scheme that seemed like it should never work contained an offense that previously looked uncontainable.