This has a shot to be the best NBA Finals since 2016. In terms of making a pick, this was the hardest call since then. Last season’s matchup between Phoenix and Milwaukee was difficult as well, but that had more to do with the injury status of Giannis Antentokoumpo than anything else.
Here’s three big things to look for in these Finals between Boston and Golden State from an Xs and Os standpoint.
Boston’s lockdown D vs. Golden State’s chaos O
This exact matchup in these Finals has the chance to define how we think about building teams in the 2020s. A Golden State win likely sees teams try to be more patient and do a “middle build” that mixes youth with a veteran core and implements mid-2010s Warriors offensive schemes. A Boston win likely shifts the mindset to one that believes that defense is what truly wins championships, even though last decade proved that wrong.
The Boston defense is a beastly brick wall. Trying to win 1-on-1? Good luck against their feisty guards, lengthy athletic wings and switchable but sturdy bigs. Trying to get a good switch? Ditto. Trying to run a well-crafted set? Take all of those athletes mentioned in a 1-on-1 setting, give them Ime Udoka as their coach and watch them crank the effort up to 10. The Celtics are built for nearly everything you throw at them.
But Golden State doesn’t run any of those offenses. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has received criticism throughout his tenure for the lack of pick and rolls he runs when conducting Golden State’s offense. At times, it’s been a fair criticism – perhaps the only one you can make during his time there – but the Warriors have never really needed to run offense like that.
Golden State has never really had a truly dominant PNR combo at its disposal. They’ve never possessed a big interior presence who could score easily at the rim, and it’s not like Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson or even Kevin Durant ever needed a screen to get a shot off. Those three are pull-up maestros.
Durant gets into the second reason as to why Golden State has never ran an offense that Boston is built to defend: who needs any sets when you have Durant and Curry creating off the dribble?
Thus, you get a ridiculous array of actions that look sets but are really just a bunch of smart players trying to get the best shot. It’s a free-flowing river of flare screens, pin-downs and unselfishness that is impossible to guard. Throw in a playmaker like Draymond Green and now you have two-to-three passers to try and stop, depending on Jordan Poole and Curry’s presence on the floor.
The difference between the Golden State offense and ones that rely on sets is that there’s no structure or ability to predict anything. You just have to guess, help and recover or switch as fast as possible. Boston has smart defenders, but even the wittiest cookies struggle to crack this.
The Celtics video coordinators are in hell attempting to break down the Warriors. A lot of trust will be placed in Boston’s players to attempt to nail down the spots every Golden State player likes, and then execute that on the court. But trust only gets one so far without prayer. Udoka will be pressured heavily in this series – the Celtics’ true defensive fundamentals, like whether they’ll switch every off-ball action or help hard and recover fast, have to be nailed down in stone heading into Game 1. Every player has to know what to do on each action they may see from the Warriors.
What could be most viable for the Celtics in this series is to force Golden State into isolations if they lock up the off-ball movement. But even that has its drawbacks and worries.
Most playoff series come down to one question: who has the best player?
It’s the question front offices ask themselves every offseason. Do we have a player that’s the best one on a championship team? What about a third round team? A playoff team?
This series, we’ll get answers to a couple questions we’ve had either for years or for months. How good is Tatum really? Is Jaylen Brown a viable sidekick? Is Thompson still that guy? Should we tempt down our expectations for Poole?
We’ve already covered how troublesome Golden State’s offense is for the Celtics. But that’s assuming that Thompson is hitting shots, and that Poole is on the court.
There hasn’t been a ton of consistency to Thompson during these playoffs, which was expected considering what we saw in the regular season. Still, 0-7 games from behind the three-point line – like what we saw in Game 4 against Memphis – are impactful this time of year. But so are games like his incredible Game 5 performance versus the Mavericks, when he sunk eight of 16 threes attempted.
At this point, how Thompson plays is a matter of luck for both sides. Boston has defenders to throw at him if it wants to in Tatum and Brown, both of whom’s wingspan can close out better than Marcus Smart’s or Derrick White’s. But does Boston really want to commit either of those two to a potential non-threat? It’ll likely be a matter of seeing how the early stages of the game play out for Udoka to make that call – it’s a simple question of whether Thompson has it or not in a given night.
For the Warriors, the stroke of luck in Thompson is just as volatile. Golden State has been hesitant to play Poole as many minutes as it did in the regular season during these playoffs, as opponents have smartly attacked Poole and his stature in PNR. But if Thompson can’t find his shot in this series, the Warriors may have their hand forced to play Poole, who brings a more dynamic and full offensive presence to the court.
How much Poole hurts defensively depends on what Boston can do offensively.
At times, Golden State can be fresh meat for the Celtics. Boston’s offensive strategy in this series will be more traditional – it’ll seek out the Warriors’ weakest defender and pound the mismatch, ideally with creators like Tatum or Brown trying to get a good look.
In Curry, Thompson and Poole, Golden State is at a disadvantage defensively. Curry’s probably a better defender than given credit for, but a lot of his success on that ends comes from measurable indicators like steals. Thompson’s a shell of himself from where he was pre-injury, and we’ve seen Poole’s size work against him already in these playoffs, hence the lessened minutes load.
But the Warriors didn’t have the league’s sixth-best defensive by defensive rating this year by accident. They still possess Wiggins and Green – inputting Wiggins there as a positive is still such a weird thing to do – and Looney has unlocked his 2019-self during these playoffs.
Whichever Boston wing Wiggins isn’t on throughout the possessions of this series is a win for the Celtics. Golden State likely doesn’t want Green on either Tatum or Brown because 1) it’s a lot to ask for someone of Green’s size at this point of his career and 2) he’s best deployed as a roaming help threat.
This leaves the Warriors with yet another predicament. If they want both Wiggins and Green out there, but not Poole, then who’s the other option? Otto Porter Jr. has been dealing with an injury the past couple weeks, and while Gary Payton Jr. returning to the lineup, it’s unclear how he helps solve Golden State’s problem as a small guard. Even if Porter Jr. is healthy, attaching him to either Brown or Tatum is risky.
Moses Moody or Jonathan Kuminga emerge, but then the Warriors are relying on rookies they’ve been reluctant to truly deploy in these playoffs. Either could get the job done, but it’s a big risk to give it a try in such a high stakes series.
The Celtics stars with viable switches just might top what Golden State can bring to the table. If Poole is given a more limited role, a lot of the brunt falls on Curry for the Warriors offense.
While the Warriors have their lethal offensive scheme to rely on, playing the guys that unlock that may give Boston the series’ overall edge thanks to what it allows the Celtics to do offensively.
And that’s not accounting for the bigs, either.
The Celtics’ size advantage
Boston as we know it does not possess a small-ball lineup.
If the Warriors force them to go to it in this series with their chaos-inducing offense, then it would mean that the Celtics are in serious trouble.
In any other scenario, Boston will have a serious size advantage over the Warriors, whether it be its typical look of Al Horford and Robert Williams III, just Horford or just Williams III at center – the latter of which Boston has deployed five times during the Playoffs, according to NBA.com.
Of course, this is all very dependent on Williams III’s health, which is anyone’s guess at this point.
Golden State would like for Boston to play one big as much as possible. In a scenario with both Horford and Williams III on the floor, the Warriors have to deal with Williams III on Looney and Horford trying to post-up Green. While Golden State will try to make the Celtics’ bigs work hard defensively, Boston has done a good job of protecting their bigs against unfavorable switches or actions. Williams III would likely hang on Green, as he’s the most sturdy cog in Golden State’s offensive machine. If Looney is on the floor, Horford should be able to hold his own.
If the Celtics play one big, it favors Golden State, allowing them to go small and put as much offense on the floor as possible. If they commit to allowing Boston’s wings to get what they want, then matching that output is their only option.
We’ll know early in the series how Golden State wants to dance. Regardless, the threat of Boston supersizing is there – and extremely threatening.
It’s funny how writing things out can change a mind sometimes. Going in, this pick was going to skew the Warriors’ way.
The bottom line in this series is this: As good as Golden State is offensively, and as problematic as their scheme is for Boston, the Celtics will likely figure it out. It might take awhile – perhaps Boston drops Game 1 in San Francisco on Thursday – but the Celtics are just too good from a fundamental and talent standpoint on the defensive end to let the Warriors torch them for four games. There’s a reason why the Celtics are discussed the way they are on that end of the floor, and being able to shut the door on an attack like this is why.
Additionally, Boston’s wings have the ability to put a lot of stress on a talented but still-lacking Golden State defense. Green will likely have to end up on one of Tatum or Brown, as Thompson just doesn’t have the legs and the rookies don’t have the experience to handle something like that. The Warriors then have to deal with the mismatch hunting Boston will try to do, and Golden State just isn’t switchy enough 1-5 to effectively deal with that, unless Moody or Kuminga 1) actually get minutes and 2) actually perform at the high level. Those both seem unlikely to happen.
Finally, Golden State going small against Boston just doesn’t seem like a viable plan in this series, which is when the Warriors are at their best. Multiple factors come into play there – the Poole in/Green at the five lineup being fresh meat for the Celtics’ hunting strategy and the size that Williams III and/or Horford bring to the table. It all seems like a lot for the Warriors to overcome.
That said, picking against Curry is terrifying. He’s still probably the best player in the series. Tatum doesn’t need to emerge ahead of Curry on the “guys you want in a playoff series” rankings for Boston to win this series. With the construction of each team, the Warriors can lose with Curry’s best, and Boston can win without Tatum’s. It’s not that Curry’s not up for it – it’s that the Warriors as a whole aren’t.
Prediction: Boston in 7