NBA Finals 2022 – Why the Warriors-Celtics series will be determined by which star duo can crack the other’s defense

NBA Finals 2022 – Why the Warriors-Celtics series will be determined by which star duo can crack the other’s defense post thumbnail image

The Golden State Warriors are in the NBA Finals for the sixth time over the past eight seasons, making them the first team to do so since the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. The Boston Celtics, meanwhile, are making their first Finals appearance since 2010. Not a single player on the Celtics’ roster has ever competed in an NBA Finals game, while current Warriors have 123 combined games of Finals experience.

Still, despite the disparity in experience, the two teams have a lot in common. Both the Warriors and Celtics have an elite pair of All-Star scorers who will be trying to find cracks in two of the best defenses in the league.

While Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown enter this championship series as the ascendant star duo in the NBA, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson represent the massive establishment obstacle that stands between Boston’s two stars and their first championship parade.

Let’s take a look at what each star duo must do in this series to take home the redesigned Larry O’Brien Trophy.


The Splash Bros. versus Boston’s perimeter defense

Curry and Thompson have helped revolutionize pro basketball by proving once and for all that so-called “jump-shooting teams” can win it all.

No single basketball player in the 21st century has changed the sport like Curry has. In the parlance of the San Francisco Bay Area, Curry’s jumper has disrupted the pro hoops industry and sparked a 3-point shooting revolution that is the dominant trend in the modern NBA.

But Golden State’s 3-point shooting is more than a stylistic game-changer. It remains the most important tool in coach Steve Kerr’s offensive toolbox, and if Boston can’t stop it, the Celtics will lose these Finals.

The Warriors dynasty is built upon player movement, ball movement and shot-making. When Kerr took over in 2014, he installed a new offense designed to create clean looks for his elite shooters. He moved away from traditional pick-and-roll sets and moved toward schemes that featured unprecedented amounts of player movement, off-ball actions and passing.

Eight years later, the Warriors averaged both the shortest average touch length and the fewest dribbles per touch among all teams in the NBA this season.

Instead of dribbling into shots, the Warriors love to pass into good looks. The numbers are startling: Golden State is averaging 28.3 assists in the playoffs. Over the past 30 years, the only team to average more assists entering the Finals was the Warriors in 2019.

If Boston wants to stifle the Splash Brothers, it must nip Golden State’s ball and player movement sequences in the bud. If Thompson and Curry are able to get clean looks on the edges, Boston is going to lose.

Made 3s are the deciding factor for this Warriors offense. They were 20-1 when they made 17 or more 3s in a game this year, and 5-13 this season when they made 11 or fewer shots from downtown.

The good news for Celtics fans is that Boston has arguably the best perimeter defense in pro basketball right now, and the Celtics’ ability to defend the arc is a big reason they are here in the first place.

This season, Boston held its opponents to the lowest 3-point percentage of any team in the NBA (33.9%), and it has been even better against the 3 in the postseason, holding opponents to 31.7% shooting from downtown.

Marcus Smart was voted Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, and his ability to contain the best shooter in the history of basketball will go a long way in determining who wins this series. The Warriors are 7-0 when Curry makes at least four 3s this postseason. They are 5-4 when he doesn’t.

For the seventh time in his career, Curry led the NBA in both 3-pointers attempted and made during the regular season. He has repeated the feat in these playoffs, sinking a league-leading 60 of his 158 treys so far this postseason.

That’s impressive, but there’s a simple reason behind it: Curry’s ability to create 3-point offense in different ways is his signature skill. Not only is he a terrifying catch-and-shoot threat, he’s also the world’s best off-the-dribble long-range shooter too.

Boston’s perimeter defense is arguably the best in the league, but Curry’s ability to hit 3s is the best in the universe, and slowing him down from deep means stopping both his catch-and-shoot 3s and his off-the-dribble 3s. Since Kerr took over in 2014-15, Curry is the only player to make at least 700 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and at least 700 off-the-dribble 3-pointers; Curry has more than 1,100 makes in each category.

Kerr’s motion-based offense is so effective in part because many of its strategic sentences are punctuated by open 3-point shots for two of the best catch-and-shoot threats to ever play the sport. After taking over for Mark Jackson in 2014, Kerr implemented an innovative scheme that featured fewer pick-and-rolls for Curry and much more playmaking from frontcourt players like Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut. This shift has meant Curry and Thompson are free to constantly run around screens like snakes in a woodpile, popping out just in time to catch a pass and knock down a 3.

Thompson and Curry turn perimeter catches into buckets at astounding rates; in the Kerr era, including both the regular season and the playoffs, Curry has converted 43.8% of 3,027 catch-and-shoot attempts and Thompson has made 42.5% of 3,380.

That’s what makes the Splash Brothers so scary. Even if you somehow contain Curry or he has on off night shooting, Thompson can still beat you. Just ask the Mavs, who held Curry to 2-of-7 from downtown in the last game of the Western Conference finals, only to have Thompson punish them with 8 treys and a game-high 32 points.

Thompson is one of the greatest off-ball threats in league history. He doesn’t get a ton of touches, but he makes the most of the ones he gets. Per Second Spectrum, he has averaged 0.46 points per touch under Kerr, the highest efficiency among all players with at least 5,000 touches.

However, in that same timeframe, Boston has been the best 3-point defense in the NBA, holding opponents to 35.3% shooting on catch-and-shoot attempts, the lowest such mark in the league. This season, Ime Udoka’s defense has held opponents to just 34% on catch-and-shoot tries; only Phoenix was better.

Boston’s defense is loaded with the exact kinds of shrewd and long defenders who were born to both prevent and effectively contest 3-point shots. The numbers prove it. Tatum, Brown, Smart, Derrick White and Robert Williams III have all held opposing 3-point shooters to below 33% shooting when they’ve been the contesting defender.

One of the things that makes Boston’s defense so elite is its depth. Almost every member of the Celtics’ rotation is both a talented individual defender and a willing team defender. Every member of Boston’s starting five received at least one vote for Defensive Player of the Year. Yes, stopping the Splash Brothers is a gargantuan task, but so was stopping Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — and this defense did that.


Tatum and Brown against the Warriors’ defense

On the other end of the court, the big questions have less to do with 3-point shooting and more to do with whether Boston’s young duo can produce points without wasting possessions.

As a tandem, Tatum and Brown combined to average over 50 points per game this season, and both are more than capable of being the best player in any game on any given night.

Both players are threats to score from beyond the arc, in the midrange and at the rim. Will Andrew Wiggins and the Golden State defense be able to control both of these scorers at once? Some of that will depend on Thompson’s ability to rediscover his own defensive greatness, if that’s even possible at this point after missing more than two years due to significant lower-body injuries (ACL, Achilles tendon).

But scoring is only one of the big challenges for Boston’s dynamic duo. Two other trends we’ve seen this postseason are bigger causes for concern:

1. Turnovers

Too many times in the Eastern Conference finals the Celtics’ offense failed to even get a shot off because either Tatum or Brown turned the ball over. Tatum ended the series with 33 turnovers. Brown added 23. No other player in the series on either team had more than 12.

As a team, Boston is 0-4 this postseason when it logs more than 15 turnovers in a game. The Celtics are 12-2 when they record 15 or fewer. The Warriors forced 14.5 turnovers per game and ranked sixth in the NBA with 14.9 pass deflections per game, making Tatum’s sloppy passing an increased concern.

Between Tatum’s passing and Brown’s ballhandling woes, the Celtics wasted way too many possessions versus the Miami Heat and narrowly escaped disaster against a much less dangerous offense than the Warriors possess. Those giveaways are a big issue, especially when paired with Golden State’s ability to parlay live ball turnovers into points on the other end of the court; the Warriors ranked sixth in the NBA this season by scoring 18.1 points per game off turnovers.

2. Clutch time execution

Simply put, Boston has been bad in big moments all season long, a trait that was on full display in its biggest game of the season. Boston led by nine points with under 2 minutes to go and came within a Jimmy Butler pull-up 3-pointer of its campaign having a much different ending.

During the regular season, the Celtics ranked 29th in the league in clutch time winning percentage. Boston was a woeful 13-22 in games during which the score was within five points in the final 5 minutes for one big reason: Its clutch time offense was awful.

The Celtics were one of six teams to have an offensive efficiency under 100 in clutch time during the regular season; the other five teams were all in the draft lottery. While Boston is in the Finals, it’s hard to picture the Celtics winning this series without a few victories in close games.

Tatum and Brown haven’t made enough big offensive plays in these big moments, and if any of these Finals games are close down the stretch, it’s hard to trust they will suddenly start making them against Green and one of the best defenses in the league.

During the regular season, Tatum made just two of his 25 3s and just nine of his 42 total jumpers in clutch time. He logged 13 turnovers and just seven assists. Of the 29 players who registered at least 100 minutes of clutch time and attempted 50 or more shots, Tatum was the only one with more turnovers than assists.

Those ghastly numbers from the team’s leading scorer are a big reason for Boston’s struggles in close contests this season.

At his worst, Tatum still has a tendency to isolate and take difficult shots down the stretch. Sometimes the Mamba Mentality isn’t an asset, and it’s telling that Tatum’s biggest single shot of this postseason — the buzzer-beating layup against the Brooklyn Nets — occurred when he trusted his teammates and made a brilliant off-ball cut to the rim, a play that was more Manu Ginobili than it was Kobe Bryant.

Both Brown and Smart were better in the clutch, but Tatum is clearly the focal point of this offense. If the Celtics want to upset the Warriors, Tatum needs to both make his clutch time jump shots and have a much better assist-to-turnover ratio during winning time.

The turnovers and the clutch play are cause for concern for Boston, and they are the big reasons it enters these Finals as the underdogs.

Still, if the Warriors are going to win their fourth title in the past eight seasons, they will have to overcome one of the best defenses they’ve ever faced in their dynastic run. Even though Golden State is favored to win, here are three big reasons not to hand the Warriors the trophy just yet:

  1. Between Feb. 1 and the end of the regular season, Boston had the NBA’s top-ranked offense and its top-ranked defense.

  2. Since the playoffs began, the Celtics have eliminated Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the top-seeded Heat in three consecutive series.

  3. The Celtics are the only team with a winning record versus the Warriors since Kerr took over in 2014-15.

The cliché tells us that defense wins championships, and while that’s true — these Finals feature the league’s two best defenses — this series will ultimately be determined by which of these offenses is able to find production and efficiency in the faces of great defenders. Personally, I am picking Golden State to win in seven games because I think the Warriors’ offense has both more experience and more depth and because in a make-or-miss league, they have two of the best shooters in its history.




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