Why Celtics-Warriors could be a truly epic NBA Finals

Why Celtics-Warriors could be a truly epic NBA Finals post thumbnail image

It almost seems strange that this potentially epic NBA Finals matchup hasn’t happened already.

This is the third iteration of the Golden State Warriors to reach the league’s apex in the past decade. It’s a redemption season for every level of the organization: for Steve Kerr and a coaching staff who stuck to the principles of their motion-based offense and the singular star from whom the whole system emanates; for the Stephen CurryDraymond GreenKlay Thompson core that really never stopped winning; and for an ownership group and front office that bet on Andrew Wiggins and dared try threading the needle — amid mockery — of winning today while building for tomorrow.

The hints were there: Golden State’s run through the last two rounds in the 2019 Western Conference playoffs after Kevin Durant‘s calf injury, and then their 15-5 sprint to finish last season — when they mothballed anything and anyone that did not mesh with the signature Curry-Green style, and looked again like the Warriors. But to return here three years, one free agency departure, and two catastrophic injuries later? That’s special.

The Boston Celtics have been trudging to this chance for a half-decade, and in many ways were built with the Warriors in mind: a hellacious, switching defense centered around big two-way wings who could fly and cut and run and bang with the vaunted Death Lineup and its successors. There is no one answer for Curry, but Marcus Smart might be the best available. Boston never traded Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum for any prime-aged superstars — the list of candidates was long — and what appeared to be precious stubbornness looks prescient now. Brown and Tatum are young, healthy, and under contract for years.

The big-name guys Danny Ainge did acquire at the cost of cap space and draft equity — Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Al Horford — are gone save for Horford, the only one of the four that really produced as expected in the playoffs. But the other three (when healthy) had some strong regular-seasons — Irving and Walker made three combined All-Star teams as Celtics — helping navigate the first 82 and playing some role in setting the younger Celtics up for valuable deep playoff experience.

Perhaps that came in handy in steeling them now for tests like a season-on-the-brink road Game 6 at the Milwaukee Bucks, and a nail-biting Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals.

Reacquiring Horford — and then trading for Derrick White at the deadline — evinced an internal optimism that should have put the rest of the league on notice. Dealing a first-round pick to exchange Walker and Horford was a meaningful sacrifice of the future to win today. Boston believed its 36-36 campaign last season was fluky — the product of injuries, faulty chemistry, and coronavirus-related absences.

Boston was 32-25 when it traded even more draft equity for White; the Celtics were surging, but not yet an obvious East favorite. They knew White brought the elusiveness and selflessness they needed. The real bet was that White — and the sloughing away of Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson — could be the last player needed for a title team. It was bold, but not if the Celtics were confident in what they had.

Boston has been the league’s best team for four months and about 55 games now. Statistically, no one even comes close. The Celtics boast the best postseason scoring margin, and the stingiest postseason defense among teams who advanced past the second round. They swept Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, survived the Giannis Antetokounmpo battering ram, and won three road games against a Miami Heat team that gives no quarter.

Boston is the only team in the Kerr era with a winning record against Golden State. The Celtics should be favorites. Some models — including ESPN’s Basketball Power Index — peg them as such. Oddsmakers disagree.

You can read Boston’s postseason run however you want. The Celtics went 12-6 against a star-laden gauntlet. Their offense stuttered at times in the previous two rounds, but a lot of that had to do with elite defenses lined up against them — including a switchy Miami team that drags everyone into the muck.

But the Celtics had been so dominant, it feels OK to be slightly (slightly!) puzzled — maybe even disappointed — that the Bucks and Heat took Boston the distance despite injuries to Khris Middleton, Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, and Tyler Herro. Boston dealt with injuries to Smart and Robert Williams III — plus one-game absences of Horford and White — but nothing on the scale of Middleton missing a full series, or three of Miami’s four best players looking like shells of themselves for long stretches.

The Celtics’ past two series have been long and brutal, leaving Smart and Williams III banged up. Golden State has played fewer games, fewer minutes, fewer nasty teams. The Warriors are getting healthier, with Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, and maybe even Andre Iguodala returning at some point.

Boston’s turnovers spiked against the grabby Heat. The Warriors are grabby too — they ranked sixth in opponent turnover rate in the regular season — and they will bury you in an avalanche of fast-break 3s and rim runs if you ignite their transition game. (That includes by falling over at the basket and whining to referees.) Boston has been perhaps the league’s best transition defense team all season — a downstream effect of its size and switchability — and it needs to be on high alert every second.

Turnovers will be an obvious bellwether. For the season, Boston has been solid at both protecting the ball on offense and snatching turnovers on the other end. Golden State forces a lot, but commits even more; only the Houston Rockets posted a worse turnover rate. If the turnover battle is close to even, or tilts toward the Warriors, Golden State is in business.

Turnovers are the price of the Warriors’ creativity — of playing a pass-and-cut style all their own. That style can give them an edge early in series. There is an adjustment period. Boston has faced three pretty basic offenses on its path here. Golden State is the NBA’s knuckleballer, only if the knuckleball whizzed at 115 mph and zigzagged in every direction almost at random. The Warriors enter the Finals No. 1 in postseason points per possession.

It’s easy to suggest “switch everything” as the antidote to Golden State’s offense, and Boston is the postseason opponent most adept at switching — most practiced at it — since the 2018 Houston Rockets pushed Golden State to Game 7 in the Western Conference finals. Boston will stick Smart on Curry, and switch a lot of actions — on and off the ball — involving Smart, Brown, Tatum, White, Payton Pritchard, Grant Williams, and maybe even Horford, depending on lineup construction.

(This figures to be a safer series for both White and Pritchard. Golden State doesn’t feature a bully ball fulcrum anywhere near the level of Durant, Antetokounmpo, or Butler, and it isn’t hardwired to hunt mismatches. Pritchard’s ability to stay on the floor for 15-ish minutes, make shots, and loosen Boston’s spacing stands as another swing factor.)

But switching against the Warriors is not the same as switching against other teams. Curry is the greatest shooter ever. Thompson might be No. 2. If they rocket off pindown screens, you have to chase them over those picks. Switching in that moment from Curry onto his screener almost by definition means switching onto that screener’s back — exposing an easy backdoor cut for that screener.

Green leverages the same positioning to set a massive pick on two defenders instead of cutting to the rim himself:

Golden State’s tentpole player can really be four or five different players in 15 seconds of offense. Curry can morph from “normal” pick-and-roll ball handler into a Ray Allen-style off-ball sprinter, then into back screener, then back into ball handler — only in another location against a worse defender, with the Warriors about to spring into yet another action. It is so demoralizing to snuff five actions over 15 seconds of great defense, only to be undone by one mistake on the next one.

Defending a star so malleable requires a defender — Smart — and the entire team defense to be just as malleable. Every player might have to switch, then stay home, then drop back to protect the rim, and then sprint at shooters again. Golden State forces you to memorize lots of rules, and juggle several choices at once. It can overwhelm players.

And while Smart and the Celtics have done well against this offense, this is the first time the Warriors will be able to really game-plan against them.

But these Celtics might be the best defensive team since their 2008 title-winning team, or the 2004 Detroit Pistons before them. They are ready. The wild card might be Williams III. He adds a vertical dimension on both ends. He has been dealing with knee issues, and looked rickety in Game 7 against Miami. Rickety big men are chum for Golden State.

Boston’s defense became an unsolvable vise grip when Ime Udoka and his staff repositioned Williams onto nonshooting wings and assorted corner dwellers — freeing Williams as a rover, shifting Horford onto centers, and allowing Boston to switch almost everything.

I’m not sure that’s possible against most Golden State lineups. Williams III might (and has before) start on Kevon Looney. The Celtics have mostly kept him away from Green, favoring Horford and Tatum there. Williams III obviously shouldn’t defend Thompson or Curry. Sticking him on Wiggins feels too cute.

If Williams III is on Looney, Golden State will test his pick-and-roll defense against Curry. This is one action Boston has rarely switched in Williams III’s small sample of games against Golden State. With a healthy “Time Lord,” Boston might try switching as a changeup. They typically have Williams III corral Curry at the point of the screen while Smart skitters over it, counting on the three defenders behind the play to shut off anything if the ball gets by the top of the defense.

Golden State will go small a ton, with Green at center. Where can Williams survive against those groups — if Boston proves unwilling to slot him onto Green? There is no great place for him against the super-small Poole Party group — Curry, Thompson, Jordan Poole, Wiggins, Green — but the Warriors have steered away from that, and toward medium-sized lineups with Porter and Moses Moody in place of Thompson or Poole. Williams can hang out on those guys — or Payton and Iguodala, should one or both return.

Things might be cleaner when Boston downsizes to match, which usually means Smart, White, Brown, and Tatum with Horford as the only big. Boston has preferred to stay big — with two of Horford, Williams, and Williams III — all season, but its core small lineups have done well in the playoffs; Boston is plus-26 in 93 minutes with Horford as solo big. The Celtics have barely used Williams in that lone big role, but there could be a place for those lineups against Golden State.

Single-big lineups declutter the Celtics’ spacing on offense; they can play 5-out. That makes for wider driving lanes, and easier kickout reads when the Warriors send help.

Boston is a versatile offense, but against top-shelf playoff defenses it has — like many other teams — pivoted into simpler mismatch hunting. Tatum and Brown seek out undersized or slow-footed defenders, and call them up for pick-and-rolls. Tatum and Brown will test Looney’s ability to contain them in drop-style coverage and on switches, but the bulk of Boston’s hunting will likely focus on Curry and Poole.

All these drives have amped up Boston’s free throws too, and the Warriors foul a lot.

Smart and Tatum ran about eight pick-and-rolls between them per 100 possessions in the regular season, according to Second Spectrum. That is up to 18 in the playoffs. With time to plan, the Celtics can add wrinkles — placing release valves high on the wing for Tatum and Brown to ignite passing sequences, and Spain-style actions in which a third Celtic looms in the paint to nail Curry or Wiggins with picks to halt their recovery.

After Milwaukee’s rim barricading and Miami’s switch-everything style, it might almost feel like a relief to face a team that puts two on the ball and gets into rotation. It could enliven Boston’s passing game.

Of course, the Warriors just lived an endless reel of all this against Luka Doncic and fared well. They mostly refused to switch, banking on Curry and Poole to lunge at Doncic and nudge him just enough off his path to delay his slicing attacks. Curry has gotten really good at this, thanks to hundreds of reps on the biggest stage against the meanest, smartest, and most well-rounded perimeter mismatch hunter in league history: LeBron James. Poole … not so much.

The biggest difference between Golden State and Phoenix Suns game plans against Doncic was Golden State going all in on sending early swarming help into the paint if Doncic penetrated with the dribble or the pass. That risks hails of open catch-and-shoot 3s — precisely what Phoenix wanted to avoid playing Doncic straight-up.

Golden State wagered on its smarts, speed, versatility and out-and-out ferocity — on flying around without making any mistakes, and coaxing at least semi-contested 3s. The Dallas Mavericks went cold, but the Warriors have earned that self-belief.

The Warriors improvise switches you might not expect — Looney toggling onto Tatum above, with Thompson bodying up Horford — and make you work for so-so 3s.

Boston’s shooting around Tatum and Brown might be a hair worse than what Dallas slotted around Doncic. It’s a “duh” thing, but a lot of this series will come down to how many 3s White, Horford, Williams, and Smart make.

But Boston’s support players bring way more playmaking than the Mavs’. Even in tight spacing, the Celtics can pass and cut and burrow their way to decent looks:

Both Horford and Williams III are on the floor for those plays. Everything gets easier when White replaces one of them in smaller groups, and some of the more gruesome turnovers Tatum and Brown gagged up against Miami indicated both might benefit from a more open floor.

The downside in Boston going small is allowing Golden State to play with Green’s matchup. Wiggins will guard Tatum, but one of the biggest questions of the series is who guards Brown — and how well. Against bigger lineups featuring both Horford and Williams III, I’d bet on Thompson getting the first crack at Brown — the toughest test so far of Thompson’s post-injury defense. I’d also expect Golden State to toy with Thompson on Horford and Green on Brown.

(It’s antiquated, but I wouldn’t mind Boston giving Horford, Williams, and even Smart the occasional post touch against smaller defenders. Depending on Golden State’s response, it could draw help and unlock some inside-out passing.)

When both teams go small, the Warriors have more flexibility deploying Green. They could slot Porter onto Horford, freeing Green to guard just about anyone. Green has occasionally defended Brown, Smart, and Tatum as his primary assignment.

The Warriors will mix in zone and maybe some box-and-one when two of their weaker defenders are on the floor. They’ll surprise Boston with some hard double-teams above the arc.

Both teams have counters upon counters. These are two legitimately great teams that match up well. I’d be shocked if this series ends in fewer than six games.

I’ve picked Boston in every series so far. Two weeks ago, I’d have picked it to win banner No. 18 here. Perhaps I’m falling victim to recency bias and underrating both the Bucks without Middelton and the Heat with their myriad of issues, but I didn’t love how Boston wrapped the East — both in terms of style and health.

The Warriors are rested, getting players back, and have the extra home game. By the slimmest of margins, I’ll go Warriors in seven.

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