Which players will determine what looks like one of the most evenly matched NBA Finals showdowns in recent memory?
On paper, little separates the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics entering this series. The teams finished two games apart in the standings and are first (Boston, plus-6.1) and second (Golden State, plus-5.4) in point differential so far in the playoffs. After adjusting for the regular-season performance of the opponents they’ve faced, the two teams have performed almost identically in the postseason.
In a series this close, any number of contributors could make the difference. Already, we’ve seen the Celtics rely on reserves like Grant Williams stepping up as the primary defender against Giannis Antetokounmpo much of their series with the Milwaukee Bucks and Derrick White playing a key role in small lineups.
Meanwhile, the Warriors leaned more heavily than expected on part-time starting center Kevon Looney to close out the Memphis Grizzlies and beat the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals. And as ESPN’s Kendra Andrews noted Monday, the return of Gary Payton II from an elbow fracture could be important for Golden State’s depth in the Finals.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 10 most important players in the Boston-Golden State NBA Finals, which begin Thursday, 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
10. Grant Williams | F | Celtics
Because he’s been healthy the entire run and played consistently, Williams ranks fourth on the Celtics in playoff minutes while starting just five of 18 games. Against an opponent that prefers to play from the outside in, Williams’ quick feet and better than 40% 3-point shooting may prove more valuable than Robert Williams III‘s rim protection and above-the-rim finishing.
9. Jordan Poole | G | Warriors
At the other end, the Celtics’ aggressiveness after Poole defensively may determine how long Warriors coach Steve Kerr keeps him on the court. After averaging 31.0 MPG the first two rounds, Poole’s playing time dropped to 28.0 MPG against Dallas because the Mavericks wanted to get him switched onto Luka Doncic. Among Warriors players, only Curry defended screeners more in the conference finals than Poole, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
Boston will surely use a similar approach with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who have a similar size advantage against the 6-foot-4 Poole. Kerr will live with some mismatches because of Poole’s own capabilities on offense but may have to switch to zone or take him off the court if Poole is getting lit up.
Horford never had a realistic chance of winning MVP of the Eastern Conference finals after missing Game 1 in COVID-19 health and safety protocols and averaging just 9.8 PPG for the series (including 3-for-17 shooting in Games 6 and 7), but he was as important as any Celtics player thanks to his defensive versatility. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Boston’s 19.2-point swing per 100 possessions with Horford on the court vs. off-matched MVP Tatum for largest in the series.
As much as the story of the Celtics’ midseason jump defensively was credited to putting Robert Williams on perimeter players and allowing him to serve as a help defender against pick-and-rolls, it was equally made possible by Horford’s strong defense at the point of attack. Nearing age 36 (he’ll hope to celebrate Friday after a Game 1 win on Thursday), Horford remains as effective switching on smaller opponents as any big man in the NBA.
Second Spectrum tracking showed Horford allowed the fewest points per chance on switches among the four players who have defended the screener at least 500 times, a group that also includes Grant Williams and All-Defensive Second Team selection Bam Adebayo.
A return to the NBA Finals is a moment three years in the making for Thompson, whose last Finals game ended early with an ACL tear during the Warriors’ series-ending 2019 Game 6 loss to the Toronto Raptors. Above and beyond the emotional element, Golden State’s offense needs the juice Thompson’s shooting provides. The team has gone 2-3 in the playoffs in the five games where Thompson has failed to reach double-figures in game score, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Thompson’s most notable step back from 2019 has come at the defensive end, where he’s ceded stopper responsibilities post-injuries. Because Boston has a pair of dangerous perimeter creators, Thompson will be asked to do more defensively in this series, likely matching up with Brown much of the time.
All Smart will be tasked with in this series is defending the two-time MVP and running the Celtics’ offense. Ho hum. Despite Boston’s depth of defensive options, there’s no question Smart will match up with Curry whenever possible — which could limit his impact as a help defender.
Although the Celtics have managed to win a pair of blowouts without Smart in the playoffs as he manages playing through a variety of ailments, his absence was felt in Boston’s sloppy Game 1 loss in Miami. Smart has emerged as a calming presence on offense for the Celtics.
There’s an interesting contrast between the credit for the NBA’s top two defenses during the regular season on a per-possession basis. All five Boston starters got at least one All-Defensive vote (in part because I was the lone Horford voter), while Payton was the only other Golden State player besides Green to get any. That’s a testament to the importance of Green, who earned a spot on the second team despite missing 36 games.
In this series, Green will be responsible for protecting the paint when the Warriors go small and ensuring the offense runs smoothly. His ability to counter switching defenses, honed over years of playing with Curry, will be critical. So too will Green making an occasional 3 to force the Celtics to defend him honestly instead of aggressively helping off.
4. Jaylen Brown | G/F | Celtics
No player in this series has a wider gulf between their best and worst moments than Brown, whose ability to create his own shot has been a big factor in Boston reaching the Finals. His efficient 23.0 PPG during the playoffs have helped relieve offensive pressure from Tatum, and at times Brown has even been the Celtics’ best scorer. At others, his difficulty with turnovers (3.3 per game during the conference finals, including seven in Game 3) has also loomed large.
The least acclaimed defender among Boston’s top six players, Brown will have to carry his weight in this series against Golden State’s wing duo of Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, both capable scorers in their own right.
3. Andrew Wiggins | F | Warriors
During his first playoff run with the Warriors, Wiggins has passed every test. Another big one awaits as the primary defender against Tatum, whose 27.0 PPG rank fourth among players who have appeared in at least 10 games during this year’s playoffs. In the one matchup Wiggins played against the Celtics this season, Tatum had 27 points on 9-of-19 shooting, but Wiggins matched him point for point as he made five 3s in seven attempts.
In the playoffs, Wiggins has struck the right balance between aggressively creating his own shot and avoiding forced attempts, shooting an effective 54% from the field after accounting for the added value of his 1.5 3-pointers per game. Golden State could use more of the same from Wiggins in the Finals.
2. Jayson Tatum | F | Celtics
It hasn’t been a perfect postseason for Tatum, who has thrown up a couple clunkers: 4-of-19 in Boston’s Game 3 loss at Milwaukee and 3-of-14 in another loss to Miami in Game 3. Like his team as a whole, Tatum has delivered in the biggest moments, scoring seven points in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Heat after a 46-point effort to outduel Giannis in the must-win Game 6 on the road against the Bucks.
As I discussed last week, the early exists of the top five finishers for MVP have created an opening for the star of this year’s playoffs to ascend into those ranks. Tatum, who already earned All-NBA first team honors, has a chance to firmly solidify himself in superstar territory.
1. Stephen Curry | G | Warriors
Hey, did you know that Curry has never won Finals MVP? That particular subplot figures to get plenty of coverage over the next couple of weeks as Curry bids to add the missing piece to his resume after winning Earvin “Magic” Johnson MVP of the West finals. Given Curry’s central role to this latest incarnation of the Warriors, it seems unlikely anyone else would win MVP if they claim a fourth championship in the Curry era.
Historically, Boston has defended Curry as well as nearly any team in the NBA. Only the Bucks have held him to a lower percentage of his average game score per minute that season. However, most of that success was attributable to Avery Bradley‘s ability to shut down Curry. Before Bradley’s departure, the Celtics held Curry 24% below his typical game score. Since then, Curry has performed just 4% worse than average against Boston — despite the Celtics going 5-3 in those games.