NBA FINALS PREVIEW
NBA Finals Preview: Boston Celtics vs Golden State Warriors
It’s finally here, tonight’s the night! The long-anticipated start of the NBA Finals is tonight at 8:30, and I for one, cannot wait to see how this series plays out. Of course, I have my own thoughts and predictions as to why the series will play out the way it will, but before I get into that, how did each team arrive at this spot, the ultimate series to determine the NBA’s champion? I will give you a quick rundown of each team’s road to the Finals, their path through the Playoffs, and who will come out on top.
Let’s start with the Warriors. They’ve had a tough time the past couple of years. From an apparent dynasty (something the Celtics know a little bit about) to losing one of their key players due to injury (Klay Thompson’s ACL tear in the Finals against Toronto, then his Achilles injury that sidelined him for basically two years), to losing Kevin Durant to the Nets because he wanted his own team and he wanted to play with his good friend (and former Celtic) Kyrie Irving. How’s that working for you, Kev?
This year, the Warriors were up and down. I predicted that the return of Klay Thompson would vault the Warriors back into contention, perhaps even winning a championship back before the season started. Maybe one last run with this core as the Lakers aged like milk and some of the up-and-coming teams with young superstars like Memphis with Ja Morant, Phoenix (who just lost in the Finals last year) with Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, or Dallas with Luka Doncic still tried to figure out their identity and get some experience.
The Warriors were pretty much back to their old selves, for the most part. Steph was doing Steph things, like setting the all-time record for made 3-pointers, Draymond was doing Draymond things, like being a defensive menace, and Klay was, well, not quite the old Klay. He’s not the same defender he once was, nor is he the same deadly shooter, but the core of those three still can strike fear into their opponents, especially considering that they are two of the top three all-time leaders in made 3-pointers in the Finals (Curry 121, LeBron James 101, Klay 86). After a 53-29 regular season that saw them as the 3-seed (which would have been tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference, for what it’s worth), they rolled through the playoffs, defeating the Nuggets and two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic (but to be fair, were without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr – two of their three best players), Grizzlies (who were without the aforementioned Ja Morant for the majority of that series), and finally defeating Luka (who pretty much carried that team with a sporadically-performing supporting cast) and the Mavericks handily to reach the Finals.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream for the Warriors this season, though. On March 16 against the Celtics in San Francisco, Steph Curry suffered ligament damage in his foot when Marcus Smart dove for a loose ball and the two of them got tangled up. Warriors coach Steve Kerr was unhappy about the play, and expressed his displeasure to Smart directly. Steph was lost for 12 games, and the Warriors, after losing that game to Boston, lost 6 of their next 7.
However, this is a strong, veteran group that has been there and done that. They still have former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala on the roster to remind everyone that you don’t need to be the star to get MVP (ask Steph about that one), and this is the team that knows the regular season means nothing in the Finals (remember the team that went 73-9?). The Warriors are a hardened, playoff-proven squad that will not go gently into that good night.
One team that isn’t scared of them, however, is the Boston Celtics. Over the last ten games that these teams have played (so the cores of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart all together, as well as Steph, Klay, and Draymond), the Celtics have won SEVEN! Obviously these are all regular-season games, but the numbers for the Celtics are pretty impressive. They’ve averaged 110.7 points per game on 44.3% shooting and made 37.5% of their 3-point shots. Not only that, but since the start of this dynastic run in 2014-15, the Celtics are the ONLY team with a positive point differential (+73) in their games at Golden State. The next closest team is the Bucks, at -16, so an 89-point difference! Even the Toronto Raptors, who defeated the Warriors in the Finals a few years back, are -29! To say that this team won’t be intimidated by the success of their opponents.
The Celtics took a very different path to the Finals. On December 31, they were 16-19 and out of the play-in tournament! Even on January 21, they were still under .500, at 23-24. There was talk about needing a “real” point guard, maybe even breaking up Tatum and Brown, seeing what kind of return you could get for one or both of them. Maybe the coaching change from Brad Stevens to Ime Udoka hadn’t worked, and there were folks who posited that maybe it wasn’t the coach that was the problem, it was the players. Sports talk radio was full of ideas that seem positively insane now, like trade Marcus Smart or “would you rather keep Tatum or Brown?” segments that aired ad nauseam on a daily basis not just locally, but across the country.
But something clicked. The Celtics suddenly embraced their identity as a defensive-minded club and hung their hats on their play on the defensive end of the floor. Robert Williams III, the Time Lord, became the anchor down low. Coach Udoka would put him on the opposing team’s worst shooter to leave him free to roam the paint and block or alter shots. You may recall the shot block on PJ Tucker’s attempted 3-pointer in the last round, on which Williams was under the basket when he began his shooting motion but he darted out to contest the shot and got his fingertips on it. Tatum and Brown embraced playing more defensively, Al Horford’s presence was a huge part of this as well, as he’s always been a strong defender and rim protector. And of course, defensive stalwart Marcus Smart, finally rewarded for the play that has defined him throughout his career, was finally rewarded with the Defensive Player of the Year award.
It was because of who Marcus is that led to Curry’s injury on March 16 that I mentioned above. Marcus has always been mercurial, to say the least, on the basketball court. You love the hustle plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet, like diving for loose balls or keeping possessions alive by knocking the ball out of bounds off an opponent. Plays that are, for lack of a better term, smart. Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe made an excellent observation on Undisputed recently – if that’s the kind of hustle Marcus shows in a regular-season game, what kind of effort do you think he’ll show in his first-ever Finals appearance?
But don’t think either team has forgotten about that moment. Keep an eye on Draymond Green, who I’m sure will be guarding Jayson Tatum, as he is the Warriors’ best defender by a country mile. Draymond has been known in the past to play right up against the line of questionable and dirty, including the history he had of repeatedly kicking Steven Adams in the balls, as well as his meltdown against LeBron in the Finals that cost the Warriors the championship due to his suspension, which led Kevin Durant to sign with them. I once watched Draymond grab and pull down Anthony Davis, then of the Pelicans, and roll his legs up, and somehow get a foul called against Davis.
On the other side, don’t think that Marcus Smart is above embellishing contact in order to get foul calls either. He flops around like a trout at the slightest contact. I’m all for the NBA instituting a penalty similar to the one in the NHL where if you embellish contact, you get a two-minute penalty as well as the person who hit you. If I wanted to see grown men, professional athletes at that, roll around on the ground after the slightest contact (sometimes with no contact), whip their heads back like they got hit in the face any time someone moves their arms near them, or crumple to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, I’d watch soccer. I don’t want to see that in my basketball games.
But I digress.
The Celtics were sitting at 23-24, towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Then they woke up, starting with that defensive prowess I was discussing earlier. They went 28-7 the rest of the regular season and began feeling much more confident as they racked up not only wins but wins over the best teams in the league, as well as by massive margins. On the final day of the regular season, they played their starters and won their finale. This meant that they could potentially face the Brooklyn Nets, led by Kevin Durant (arguably the best player in the league) and former Celtic Kyrie Irving, should the Nets defeat the Cavaliers in the play-in game, which most folks figured they would.
I would also like to point out that the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks were content to rest their starters and lose the final game of the regular season to claim the 3-seed despite having the same 51-31 record as the Celtics (the Celtics finished 2nd due to tiebreakers) in order to dodge the team they had beaten en route to the title last season. The Celtics were dodging no one.
In a series most people predicted would go 7 games (including myself), the Celtics survived an incredible performance by Kyrie to win on a last-second buzzer-beating layup by Tatum to win Game 1. It was at this moment that many Celtics fans felt that this team was different. The sequence leading up to Tatum’s shot, and not specifically the shot itself was the reason why. Last year, with Jaylen Brown injured, Tatum did his best to carry the Celtics but earned just a single win against the Nets in the opening round. We weren’t surprised by Tatum’s resilience or determination. The surprising part was watching Jaylen Brown drive, and pass to Marcus Smart for a wide-open three, only to have Marcus up-fake two defenders and rifle a slick pass to Tatum for the winning basket. In years past, even earlier this season, Marcus generally would launch that shot without a second thought. In fact, that’s what most of us thought would happen. But it didn’t, and Marcus’ unselfish play led to the Game 1 victory in what would eventually become a seep of the team many thought would represent the East in the Finals before the season began.
The next round was another massive challenge for the Celtics – the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks were without one of their big three, Khris Middleton, who has tormented the Celtics in years past with this team. But they were able to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo when it counted, despite him being the first player in history with 200 points, 100 rebounds, and 50 assists in a playoff series. Basically Giannis could impose his will through much of the game, but when it came down to crunch time, the Celtics were able to slow him down or stop him. They did have a terrible time when it came to giving up second-chance points off of offensive rebounds. I do believe that home-court advantage played a vital role in the Celtics winning Game 7, though.
Then it was time to battle against the number 1 seed in the East, the Miami Heat. The very team that defeated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago in the Bubble in Orlando to take on the Lakers in the Finals. This was one of the most insane series that’s ever been played. Each team took turns storming out to huge leads, only to get trounced in the next game. Boston was able to outlast the Heat, despite Jimmy Butler’s heroics. I personally believe that if it wasn’t the first year that the Larry Bird trophy was given for the MVP of the Eastern Conference Finals, or if the Celtics hadn’t been involved but the outcome was the same, Jimmy Buckets would have been named MVP despite being on the losing side. He single-handedly kept the Heat in Game 7 and was the only reason they won Game 6.
Now we’ve covered, quickly, the path each of these teams took to get the chance to play for the Larry O’Brien trophy, so it’s time to determine who is going to bring it home. History will tell you that the Celtics have the advantage, although the last time these two teams battled for the title it was Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain in 1964. The Celtics are 16-7 against the Warriors, dating back to when they were in Philadelphia. They’ve defeated them in the playoffs 4-1, 4-2, 4-3, and 4-1 in that order. The regular-season record also favors the Celtics. Including the 7-3 record in the last 10 games, the Celtics are 208-138 all-time against the Warriors.
Of course, this means absolutely nothing to me. I just find it fascinating to think about the history of these things. Of course, the battles between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain mean nothing when it comes to these Celtics and these Warriors. Why would it? I’m going to base my predictions on the way things are going with these two teams as of right now.
WHO WILL WIN?
Even before this series started, as soon as the Warriors closed out the Mavericks, I said “Celtics in 6”, despite the fact that the Celtics hadn’t gotten past the Heat yet. For me, as soon as they swept the Nets, especially the way they did it, I was convinced that the Celtics not only could but would win it all. So I’m standing by my initial gut feeling – Celtics in 6. But how will it happen? I’m glad you asked, person who just read this so I’m pretending you asked the question.
I think the Celtics will win 3 of the first 4 games, the Warriors will win Game 5 at home, and then the Celtics close it out in Game 6. The Warriors are 9-0 at home in the playoffs, but the Heat were 7-0 and that didn’t matter. The Celtics are a great road team, so I don’t think that this will daunt them. But that still doesn’t answer the question of how it will happen. Here’s how it will go, in my mind:
Marcus Smart, Defensive Player of the Year, will guard Steph Curry. Curry is unstoppable, we know this. Like they used to say about Jerry Rice, “You cannot stop him, you can only contain him.” Marcus will contain him, he’ll play a physical style against him. Steph is the smallest starter on either team at 6’2” and 185 lbs (both of which I’m guessing are generous measurements). Smart is 6’4”, 220 – much bigger and much stronger than Steph. Steph might be quicker, but Marcus can counteract that with his length. Steph’s strongest skill, when it comes to getting open, is his amazing conditioning. He will run his defender all over the court and wear them down by running them into screens, generally set by Draymond, which could get a bit chippy when it comes to Marcus. On the flip side, Steph will have to try and guard Marcus, who will bully him by posting up or driving on him. Marcus isn’t the scorer that Steph is, but he can still put up 20, and if he can hold Steph to around the same amount of points, I consider that a win.
ADVANTAGE: Marcus Smart.
The most interesting matchup I can think of is going to pit Boston’s best overall player against Golden State’s best defender – Jayson Tatum and Draymond Green. Tatum is listed at 6’8” and 210, but I think that weight might be a bit higher after he’s gained so much muscle the last two years. Draymond is 6’6”, 230, and much like the Smart/Curry matchup, Draymond has the strength advantage, although Tatum can score on anyone and isn’t afraid to battle. He proved this against Kevin Durant last year, and even more so this year. He can overcome the size difference. I will say that Draymond will play him physically, and this matchup should mirror the Smart/Curry matchup in that Tatum won’t be going off and scoring 50 every game, although, like Curry, I’m sure there will be one or two in there. Draymond also has the advantage of being one of the best defensive players in the NBA and was especially upset that he wasn’t in the race for DPoY, which he clearly thought he deserved. Expect him to play with a chip on his shoulder in this series, especially when it comes to Smart, but he will want to put on a display of his defensive skill against one of the game’s young superstars on the biggest stage.
ADVANTAGE: Draymond Green.
The next matchup is also quite intriguing – Jaylen Brown and Klay Thompson. Jaylen has been quite the stabilizing force for the Celtics this year. He’s finally found a way to co-exist with Tatum and their chemistry has been vital to the Celtics’ success, on both ends of the floor. In many ways, he mirrored Klay Thompson’s role with the Warriors. Klay isn’t the shooter that Curry is (but then again, who is?) but is a great 3-point shooter in his own right. Klay is more clutch and a better defender by far than Curry. However, Klay is coming off of not only one, but two major lower-body injuries. In Game 6 of the 2019 Finals against Toronto, Klay tore his ACL which forced him to miss the entire 2019-20 season. Then while rehabbing, he tore his Achilles tendon and missed all of the 2020-21 season. He only returned to playing in January, causing him to miss a total of nearly THREE calendar years (31 total months missed). To say that these injuries affected him would be an understatement.
Klay is still a good defender and an above-average shooter, and this is the one matchup that’s the most evenly matched when it comes to size. Klay is 6’6” and 220 lbs, while Jaylen is 6’6” and 223 lbs, so they’re essentially the same, with no real advantage there, unlike the first two matchups I mentioned. Jaylen has also battled injuries throughout his career, as I mentioned earlier he missed last year’s playoffs due to a wrist injury. I do think that Klay is still the better player, but the injuries and missed time have taken their toll. I think Brown will outplay Klay in this series simply because of the fact that Brown hasn’t had the same types of devastating injuries Klay has had. Klay might be the better player, but I think Jaylen gets the better of him and has the better series. Klay is no longer the guy who once scored 37 points in a quarter, or the guy who hit 14 3-pointers in a game.
ADVANTAGE: Jaylen Brown
The next matchup I want to cover is basically the remainder of the major players for these two teams because this is where the series will be won and lost. The Warriors have Andrew Wiggins (6’7”, 197), Kevon Looney (6’9”, 222), and Jordan Poole (6’4”, 194) as their main three rotational pieces that fill out the starting lineup and come first off the bench. Poole has been a revelation this season, playing out of his mind and scoring like a machine in Klay’s absence, essentially taking the pressure off of him when it comes to carrying the offensive load if Curry should have an off-night shooting. For the Celtics, they have Al Horford (6’9”, 240), Robert Williams III (6’9”, 237), Grant Williams (6’6”, 236”), and Derrick White (6’4”, 190). Al Horford is the calming veteran presence that anchors the team and keeps them doing the right things not by yelling or being emotional, but by example. Recall his response to Giannis after Giannis dunked on him and scowled. Al just simply nodded his head as if to say “Okay, okay. Here we go, then” and proceeded to have the best playoff game of his career, including a dunk on the former MVP, reigning Finals MVP, and former DPoY. Rober Williams III has been mentioned as being the best defensive player the Celtics have, which is a wild thing to say considering Marcus’ status as current DPoY. Grant Williams has taken both his offensive and defensive games to the next level, and was the primary defender on Giannis for a lot of that series against the Bucks, despite a considerable size advantage. Giannis is listed as 6’11” and 242 lbs (although there’s no way he’s not much heavier than that – I saw at least 280). Derrick White is a good defender as well, and will most likely draw the duty of guarding Curry when Marcus isn’t on the floor.
The Warriors can’t match the Celtics’ size. Plain and simple. Looney is the same height as Rob and Al, but they’re heavier, and Rob might be the most athletic player in the series. He’ll probably draw the duty of guarding Looney so he can do what he does best – patrol the paint and prevent easy layups. Al will get Wiggins, which is advantage Horford. Al isn’t the fastest guy anymore at age 35 (not that he ever was) but he’s sneaky quick on the defensive end and has more moves than Ex-Lax on the offensive end to take the young fella to school. Poole has cooled off, but the chance of him having a big scoring night isn’t outside the realm of possibility. However, because of the size of the Warriors compared to the size of the Celtics, there’s really no advantageous matchup for Poole to exploit. Where Curry has no limits to his range (watch his pre-game warmup some time) Poole can’t shoot like that. If White is playing him close, and they start setting picks for him, he’s only going to run into a bigger defender that will make it more difficult for him to shoot.
ADVANTAGE: Horfy, Time Lord, Grant, White.
As you can see, the Celtics have the advantage, in my opinion, on almost every matchup. The Warriors will have to rely on a lot of athleticism and screens to get Curry, Poole, and Klay their shots. Aside from Curry, none of those guys are really a threat to put up 30-40 points. Klay may have one of those in him, but if he’s the offensive focus, the Warriors will not win that game. The Celtics are too good defensively to allow two players to go off on any given night.
For the Warriors, you need to play your best defense and hope that the Celtics will continue to be careless with the ball. As we saw in the Miami series, the Celtics – Brown and Tatum especially – are prone to double-digit turnovers. I can pretty much guarantee that if you turn the ball over 20+ times against the Warriors, you’re probably going to lose by 30. They’re not going to miss open 3s the way Miami did. They’re too good for that.
The Celtics will win this series by slowing down the transition offense of the Warriors that has crushed so many teams over the years. They have proven again and again that they can not only hang with this team, but beat them as well. I don’t think the Warriors’ home court will be as big of an advantage as some might think. I believe the Celtics will use their superior defensive skill and their budding superstars to take this series in six.
Game 1 – Celtics 101-Warriors 95
Game 2 – Celtics 124-Warriors 98
Game 3 – Warriors 112 – Celtics 104
Game 4 – Celtics 116 – Warriors 84
Game 5 – Warriors 101-Celtics 88
Game 6 – Celtics 116-Warriors 90.
Series MVP Al Horford.