It has been another year of blowouts, incredible individual performances and one surprise upset for the NBA playoffs. We saw young players like Ja Morant, Anthony Edwards, Jalen Brunson and Jordan Poole become stars right before our eyes. However, like every other year, injuries have dominated these playoffs as well. Khris Middleton, Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Robert Williams, Marcus Smart and Ja Morant are just some of the names that have gone down with injuries. But none of that matters now. After 81 playoff games, including three seven game series we have finally reached the NBA Finals. With no more than seven games to go, here is a breakdown of the final two teams standing in these playoffs:
The Golden State Warriors vs. The Boston Celtics
This is a matchup with a lot of interesting storylines to watch. Of course, you have the return of the Golden State Warriors "Big Three" to the finals with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. On the other end, you have the young, but battle tested stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown reaching their first NBA Finals and looking to build their own legacies. As much as people may bemoan these two teams' fanbases, on the court I am excited for these two teams to do battle. Golden State and Boston have very different styles on both ends of the court, so seeing them clash on the biggest stage should make for some incredible games. Let’s take a look to see how each of these two teams made their way to the NBA Finals:
The Boston Celtics:
If you asked a Celtics fan in late January if they thought the C’s would be in the NBA Finals, they would have said no and thought the Patriots were closer to championship glory than the Celtics. Granted this was after the Patriots had just lost 47-17 on January 15 to the Bills in the Wild Card round. However, since January 10 to the end of the regular season, the Celtics went 32-10, including a stretch where they won 11 of 13 games. Part of that turnaround was due to the moves that were made at the NBA trade deadline where Boston sent out Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, Dennis Schroder, Bruno Fernando, Enes Freedom and a top-four-protected 2022 first-round pick. In those trades they were able to acquire guard Derek White from the Spurs and former Celtics backup big man Daniel Theis from the Rockets. The turnaround was spurred by their defense, as they finished with the best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.2. The Celtics have continued their defensive brilliance in the playoffs by posting the second-best defensive rating at 105.1, just behind the Milwaukee Bucks at 102.7 (although it doesn’t count because they played an injured Bulls team 😉). The dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown have led the offensive charge for Beantown, averaging 27 and 22.9 points respectively. While the Celtics have two stars to lead the way, the C’s are also flush with depth in guards Marcus Smart, White and Payton Pritchard as well as in the frontcourt with Al Horford, Robert Williams and Grant Williams.
The Celtics have had a truly unique path to the Finals. They started their playoff journey with a somewhat unexpected sweep over Kevin Durant and the Nets in the first round, where they held Durant to just 26 points per game on 38% shooting from the field. After rolling the Nets, the real part of the playoffs began, as they now had to take on the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks in round two. After two blowouts and two close games, the series sat tied at 2-2 heading into game five. After some late game heroics by Bobby Portis and Jrue Holiday, the Bucks pushed the Celtics to the brink of elimination heading back to Milwaukee for game six. However, the Celtics rebounded (pun intended) in game six off the back of Tatum’s 46-point masterclass, forcing a game seven back in Boston. After that, the C’s took care of business in game seven off a career high 27 points from Grant Williams, of all people. The Celtics took game seven in blowout fashion 109-81 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in five years. In those conference finals, it was a rematch of the 2020 Eastern Conference finals with Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. It was another series that went the distance after Butler dropped 47 points in game six to push it to a game seven. The game was highly contested with the Celtics just up two with 17 seconds left. Butler pulled up for an open, transition three but missed and the Celtics got the defensive rebound, resulting in the Heat having to foul. The Heat would lose by four, 100-96, sending Boston to the NBA Finals.
The Golden State Warriors:
After two years of getting healthy and retooling after Kevin Durant left for what seemed to be greener pastures in Brooklyn, the Warriors are back to being the feared title contender they were. This team has much more the feel of the 2015 and 2016 Warriors. The Big three of Curry, Thompson and Green are now surrounded by young talent and depth. The Warriors feature young talent such as Jordan Poole (22) and Jonathan Kuminga (19) while combining with former first overall pick, Andrew Wiggins and solidifying the depth with vets in Otto Porter Jr, Kevon Looney and Juan Tascano-Anderson. But the real revelation off the bench for the Warriors has been Gary Payton II. After playing for four different teams in seven seasons, Payton has really found a home for himself in Golden State, playing some of his best basketball of his career. Off the bench, Payton has been scoring 7.2 points, grabbing 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals while shooting 35% from the three-point line. While those stats aren’t eye popping, Payton really makes his impact felt on the defensive end with his stellar perimeter defense that harkens back to his father's time in the NBA.
The Journey to the Finals:
The road for the Warriors is one I would not consider as difficult as it was for Boston or even the Dallas Mavericks who made it to the western conference final. The Warriors started round one against the now two-time league MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. While scary on paper to take on the MVP, the Nuggets were severely depleted as star guard Jamal Murray was still rehabbing his ACL injury and Michael Porter Jr. went down with a back injury. It was a much closer series that many expected on the scoreboard as games 3, 4 and 5 were decided by five points or less. But, after the Warriors had taken games one and two by over 20 points, it was lights out for Denver as they lost in five games. In round two, the Warriors would take on a young and hungry Memphis Grizzlies squad led by Ja Morant and the real most improved player Desmond Bane. This was a fairy close series in the first four games as three of the four were decided by five points or less. However, the Warriors took two of those three and blew out the Grizzlies in game three 142-112 to take a 3-1 series lead. To make matters worse for Memphis, Ja Morant went down with a bone bruise on his left knee in game three and was out for the rest of the series. The Grizzlies went back to Memphis for game five and absolutely demolished the Warriors 134-95 with three players tallying 21 points for Memphis: Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones and Bane. Despite a combined 55 points from Dillon Brooks and Bane, the Grizzlies were no match for Curry and Thompson’s 59 points combined as the Warriors advanced in game six, 110-96. In the final round of the western conference playoffs, Golden State received not the one seed in the Phoenix Suns, but the four seed in the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs, after taking part in the annual ritual of beating the Utah Jazz in the first round, upset the Suns in seven games, including a 123-90 win in game seven. That’s where the magic would end for Luka and the Mavs, as the Warriors would clamp down on everyone else and took the West final in five games.
Marcus Smart vs. Steph Curry
This the matchup that most people are going to think of when it comes to this series. The reigning defensive player of the year in Smart against the offensive juggernaut in Curry. In 10 career games Curry has averaged 24 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists against Smart but it’s been a feast or famine depending on the game. Curry has scored 25 or more in four of the 10 contests but there have also been three games where Smart has held Curry to 16 points or less, including nine points on 3-for-14 shooting on Nov 16, 2017. Smart is really going to have to clamp down on Curry and the rest of the Golden State guards if Boston wants to win this one.
Warriors Small Ball Lineup vs. Celtics Bigs
The Warriors small ball “Death Lineup,” is back, just a little different from the 2016 squad. The new lineup is Curry, Poole, Thompson, Wiggins/Kuminga, and Green. The blend of defense, ball movement, offensive flow and shooting is a beautiful sight to see for a neutral fan. That lineup will be tested against Boston though with their bigs. While Boston doesn’t have true seven-footer their bigs are physical and athletic, with Al Horford, Robert Williams and Daniel Theis. How Green and Kevon Looney deal with them on the glass will go a long way in determining who gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Celtics Perimeter Defense vs. Warriors Three Point Shooters
This will be the matchup to watch in this series. The Celtics have held teams to 31.7% from the three point line while the Warriors have shot 35% from beyond the arc in these playoffs. If the Warriors can space the floor and rain threes on Boston, it will be a quick series. However, if the Celtics can limit the Warriors shooters this will be a good series.
Prediction: Celtics in 7
While the Warriors have the championship experience, and their stars are playing well, I think the level that Boston’s defense is at right now can really clamp down on the Warriors. I also think that even though the Celtics will have less rest time heading into the series, I almost prefer that. They have been battle tested against the Bucks and the Heat while the Warriors have had arguably a much easier road. Despite the prowess of the Warriors, I think the young stars in Tatum and Brown will hoist title number 18 for Beantown.