If you rewind the tape to the dog days of the NBA season you might remember the last time the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors matched up. The outcome wasn’t memorable, but a play almost derailed everything we are about to witness in this Finals series.
In that game the Warriors title hopes flashed before their eyes in the second quarter when Marcus Smart chased a loose ball which ended up in a Steph Curry injury. That moment could have derailed the entire season for the Warriors.
But it didn’t. And for that I feel like the NBA Gods might grant us a historic Finals.
This series pits the league’s two best regular-season defenses against each other. This will be a challenge for both offenses. But that’s a bit of a simplistic telling.
Boston’s defense has been leaps and bounds ahead of any other unit since the calendar flipped to 2022. Its rating in the final four months of the regular season was 105.2, three efficiency points stingier than the next closest. That’s carried into the playoffs. The Celtics have produced a cumulative 105.1 rating during their takedown of the Nets, Bucks and Heat.
The Warriors have a league-best 116.1 offensive rating in the playoffs. That’s four efficiency points above their regular-season ranking. Curry is in a groove. Poole has arrived. Klay Thompson always has big nights in his back pocket. Andrew Wiggins has found his role. Green has upped his aggression lately. Looney is gobbling up offensive rebounds. Most everything has clicked on that end.
So that’s where the chess match in this series begins: the Warriors’ offense against Boston’s defense. Neither has faced near the challenge in these playoffs that the opposing unit presents. Which one of them can sustain success despite a three-level jump?
Biggest Question for the Warriors: Can they score efficiently enough, long enough?
The Warriors have prided themselves on being an offensive juggernaut for the past decade. But if they have one flaw at least this season it has been finishing at the rim against teams with true rim protectors. I’ll touch on that later, but the Warriors will win this series one way, by shooting the Celtics into the ground.
It is easier said than done against the best defense the league has seen in years, but that is the Warriors one card to play.
Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics best 3 players, who happen to play on both ends of the floor, there will be at least 2 elite defenders on the floor for 40 minutes of every game.
Smart will be draped all over Curry, likely pressing 94 feet like only the DPOY could. Tatum and Brown will get their chances along with Derrick White, in sparing opportunities.
With the Celtics ability to lockdown and switch basically 1-5, the Warriors will have to be creative to get open looks and favorable matchups.
But that is the system the Warriors run anyway. Pin downs, back screens, pivoting options off of flare screens. The Warriors thrive in confusing the defense with the most basic fundamentals to free up the most lethal shot in the game; the 3 pointer.
Curry and Klay have to knock down 40%+ of their 3 point shots. Andrew Wiggins need to be the All-star Wiggins, not the hide in the corner Wiggins.
Jordan Poole needs to be the dynamic scorer we have seen when Curry takes a breather. If not the Warriors will suffer long offensive struggles against this tenacious Boston defense.
If and when the Warriors shots begin to bounce off the rim rather than fall through, games can get ugly in a hurry. That is the way Boston will win, and a way the Warriors can’t.
So keep a lookout for the way the Warriors handle off shooting nights.
Biggest Question for the Celtics: Can they find a consistent 3rd scorer?
The Celtics go as far as Tatum and Brown take them offensively. But in a 7 game series against a championship winning team and culture, you need more than great play from your star players. Tatum and Brown can go for 30 each night, but where are the other 40-50 points going to come from?
The obvious pick would be Marcus Smart considering he is their primary ball handler, but will he have the energy to put up 15 a night while chasing Curry and Klay Thompson off screens for 40 minutes over the course of 7 games?
Big Al could be that guy occasionally, just ask Milwaukee and Miami. But you can’t bank on it night in and night out from a veteran at that age. Looking up and down the rest of the roster the scoring ability is very limited. Will the Celtics be able to go shot for shot with the Warriors high powered offense enough to win 4 games?
We will soon find out.
X Factor: Robert Williams’ Health
I know this is a basic bitch type of thinking but health has been wealth this postseason. In every round the team that was healthiest was the victor.
For the Celtics, they ran through a discombobulated Nets team. Beat the Bucks with Middleton out. And took care of Miami, albeit with both teams missing vital players for some games.
Out West the Warriors blew past a depleted Nuggets roster and escaped a Memphis series with Ja Morant missing games.
Heading into the Finals, health will once again be the key holder for success. Particularly the health of one Robert Williams.
The Warriors felt such freedom against the Mavericks because of their lack of rim protection. Maxi Kleber blocked six shots in five games, but nobody feared Kleber when they entered the lane. He wasn’t a deterrent.
Memphis’ defense gave the Warriors the most trouble in these playoffs, and that’s partially because Jaren Jackson Jr. swatted away 15 shots in six games and altered countless more. Poole had trouble getting to the rim against the Grizzlies, especially once Steven Adams entered the picture next to Jackson. Green scored five or fewer points in the first five games of the series.
That’s what makes Williams (and the health of his knee) such a massive factor in this series. Jackson was second in the league in blocks this season. Williams was fourth. Boston’s season ignited when they switched up their defensive scheme and had Williams guard non-shooters and roam around hunting shots.
In that domination of the Warriors in March, Williams had four blocks in just 23 minutes.
That was before Williams tore the meniscus in his left knee in late March. He missed the end of the regular season and rushed back in the playoffs. Williams is still clearly hobbled. He’s missed a few games and seems to be questionable leading up to tipoff just about every night. He left early in Game 6 of the Miami series and was limping in Game 7, able only to play 15 minutes.
Al Horford has put together a sensational six weeks. He had 14 rebounds and a pair of blocks in 44 give-everything minutes to close out Miami. His size and defensive brain give Boston a second big who can bother the Warriors better than anybody Dallas employs. But Williams, when healthy and bouncy, is the disruptive force who could really impact the Warriors’ gameplan on the back end.
If the Celtics have Williams circling the paint like a shark, the Warriors will struggle immensely when attacking the rim. If Williams presence forces the Warriors offense to go from 3 level scoring to 2 level scoring, it might be enough to swing the series in Boston’s favor.
Prediction: Warriors in 7, Steph Curry wins the elusive Finals MVP
My mind is telling me Boston in 7 but my Lakers heart won’t allow me to ever say it.
But in terms of narrative, both long term and in the present, the Warriors winning the title is the story to follow here.
And with the two teams being so evenly matched, why not root that way.
Of course the Warriors still need to execute flawlessly. Curry has to be dominant, not just good. Klay has to have 2-3 dynamic Klay classics to complete the full comeback story. Jordan Poole needs to be closer to the version we saw in the Nuggets series than he was in the past tow series.
Draymond can’t be baited into techs and flagrant causing him to miss a game.
This is a legacy series for the Warriors, one that will affect not just those on the team but even those sitting at home, *cough Kevin Durant cough*
I think Curry can slide up the all time ranks with a win and finals MVP.