NBA Finals: Warriors need ‘force’ to be with them in Game 5 vs. Celtics, but what exactly does that mean?

SAN FRANCISCO — At least once during every Warriors home game, in-house maestro DJ D-Sharp spins the unmistakable anthem of legendary Bay Area rapper Too $hort, “Blow the Whistle.” Anticipation builds as the first chorus nears, and finally you hear 18,000 people jubilantly scream out in unison the five-letter, NSFW answer to Mr. $hort’s familiar query, “What’s my favorite word?” Hint: It rhymes with “rich,” only if it were pronounced, “riiiiiiiaaaaach.”

The Golden State Warriors and their coaching staff, however, probably have to restrain themselves from shouting out their own five-letter word that’s become ubiquitous in the search for their fourth NBA title in eight seasons: Force.

Since the NBA Finals began, the Warriors have participated in 10 media availability sessions. In those 10 sessions, Warriors players and head coach Steve Kerr have uttered the word “force” so much that it’s become a cliche — 47 times, to be exact. Yes, I counted.

“Play with that same force.” “The force that we needed to play with.” “Our level of force.” So far they’ve refrained from any dad-joke Star Wars references — but there are at least two more games in the series, so don’t count it out. While Draymond Green has used the term more than any other Warrior in the Finals, by far, Kerr has continually identified the level of force as a key factor, sometimes the key factor, in whether his team wins or loses.

“I think the whole focus has to be our energy and our force,” Kerr said about Monday’s pivotal Game 5 against the Boston Celtics in San Francisco. “It’s obvious [in Game 4] how much more alert we were, how much more force we played with.”

The idea of “force” has become something of a Golden State mantra. They were using it long before this series began, and will continue to use it long after. But what exactly does it mean?

For what seems to be such an important term in the Warriors locker room, the definition is quite vague. Merriam-Webster has six separate definitions for the noun form, most of which have their own sub-entries — everything from “moral or mental strength” to “violence, compulsion or constraint.” So when the Warriors use the word over and over and over again, it’s fair to question why they do it, and what exactly they mean by it.

Golden State guard and dynasty staple Klay Thompson, when asked how he knows when he’s playing with appropriate force, struggled to come up with a clear explanation.

“How do you know?” Thompson said, staring at the ceiling of the Bill King Interview Room at Chase Center on Sunday. “Well, it’s hard to know until you watch the film after, but a good indicator when you’re out there is just not letting them get layups or easy, wide-open looks in the beginning. But making them work to score, that usually means that we are locked in.”

Those seem to be definitions of the results, rather than the process. They know they’re playing with force because the other team isn’t scoring, but how do you summon that force in the first place?

Fellow Splash Brother Stephen Curry may have summed it up best during one of his responses on Sunday: “Effort and intensity and physicality.” That combination seems to perfectly describe what the Warriors mean by “force,” and it jibes with the eye test when Golden State is at its peak — like the Warriors team we saw for large parts of wins in Games 2 and 4.

Kerr said there are tell-tale signs when his team is playing with the effort, intensity and physicality necessary to compete at a high enough level to beat the Celtics.

“Boxing out is one of them. Ball pressure defensively. Rotations,” Kerr said on Sunday. “You can just tell, are you a step early or a step late? I think that’s pretty much a common theme throughout the playoffs and every matchup.”

If you could define “force” with a single video clip, it might be the very first possession of Game 2 of the Finals. Boston had stunned Golden State with a fourth-quarter barrage in Game 1 that included 40 points on 9-for-12 3-point shooting, and the Warriors knew they needed to come out strong. Using the ball pressure that Kerr mentioned, Green gave Al Horford absolutely no airspace as he tried to initiate the action from behind the 3-point arc, then Green used his length, strength and timing to tie him up for a jump ball, much to the delight of the crowd and the bench.

The Warriors, of course, went on to handily win the game and even the series.

After a shaky start to Game 4, Golden State looked like it was starting to figure things out midway through the first quarter. This clip is an excellent illustration of all the aspects Kerr mentioned when defining “force.” Just a few of the things that take place on this single possession:

  • Thompson pressures Marcus Smart in the back-court, taking the Celtics out of rhythm to start the possession.
  • After Smart falls and gets the ball back, Looney quickly recovers to Horford to eliminate a potential 3-pointer.
  • Curry bodies up Derrick White, forcing him to spin into the middle.
  • Andrew Wiggins rotates over to help on White.
  • Otto Porter Jr. quickly rotates to contest Grant Williams’ corner 3-point attempt.
  • As the shot goes up, Looney takes a quick glance at Horford to ensure he’s not crashing the offensive glass.
  • Curry and Looney both jump for the ball in an effort to finish the possession with a rebound.

When Thompson says it’s easier to identify “force” watching film the next day, this is likely what he’s talking about. The Warriors were physical, disciplined and energetic on this play — right where they needed to be. That’s not always going to lead to a defensive stop, but over the course of a game you’re probably going to come out on top more often than not.

It also applies to offense. On Sunday Curry mentioned the need for him and Green to be “a lot more organized on our spacing and our force on pick-and-rolls.” There’s surely more nuance to what he means, but in terms of of the physical aspect, you need look no further than this viral clip from Game 2, in which Green screens three Celtics on the same play to free up Curry for a 3-point look.

If that’s not force, I’m not sure what is.

It’s weird to consider that a series played between the two best teams in a league composed of the world’s best basketball players would come down to effort, intensity and physicality rather than pure talent, but that’s often the case. The Warriors have been the aggressor in two games and the Celtics have been in the other two, so it’s no surprise we have a tied series on our hands.

For all the Xs and Os and rotations and scheming that will go into Monday’s Game 5, the winner will likely be the team that seizes the advantage when it comes to Golden State’s favorite word.

“I mentioned watching the Miami/Boston series. It was almost like automatic, whichever team lost, came back and punched the other team in the mouth the next game, and it kept going back and forth,” Kerr said on Sunday. “I just think that, especially as you get deeper in the playoffs, teams are so evenly matched and the games are physical and intense. Even the slightest edge in terms of that force and energy makes a big difference.”

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