The 2022 NBA Finals are set, featuring a matchup between the franchise with the most titles in league history and the franchise with the most titles in the past decade. The Celtics overcame a 23-24 start to the regular season and playoff matchups against the Nets, Bucks, and Heat to prove the computer models right and reach their first Finals since 2010; the Warriors rebounded from two consecutive playoff misses for a chance to restore their dynastic reign with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
The chief story line of this series is an easy sell: The three-time champions are facing off against the newcomers, the veteran old guard against the youngsters straining to take their place. Yet even when the Warriors were the NBA’s most fearsome team, Boston always seemed to play them well, most memorably in a double-overtime thriller that pushed Golden State’s win streak to 24 games to start the 2015-16 season.
Since Steve Kerr took over as the Warriors’ coach and they romped to their first title of this era, they’ve gone only 7-9 against the Celtics. In fact, Boston is the only team with a winning record against the Warriors in that span.
After a consistent every-other-day schedule throughout the conference finals, both teams will relish the time off between now and Thursday, June 2, when Game 1 tips off in San Francisco. What are the main considerations that each team will ponder over the next three days, and what should fans look for when the Finals begin? Here are three initial questions that will help decide the 2022 championship.
1. Which superstar is peaking at the right time?
It’s somewhat reductive to say that the best player in a series will win—but Curry vs. Jayson Tatum is a mighty compelling matchup in this series. Curry is a two-time MVP, the greatest shooter in league history, and a second-team All-NBA honoree this season; Tatum, just 24 years old, is less accomplished in his career but made the All-NBA first team this season.
Curry is in an interesting spot—both for his legacy, as a Finals MVP is just about the only hardware he’s lacking, and in the moment. While he just won the inaugural Western Conference finals MVP award in a unanimous vote and leads Golden State in points and win shares in the playoffs, Curry also hasn’t played to his usual standard this regular season or postseason. In particular, he hasn’t yet experienced a single phenomenal, game-long explosion. Curry hasn’t made more than six 3-pointers in any game this postseason; he’d previously had at least one game with seven-plus makes in every postseason appearance since 2013-14. And he hasn’t scored more than 34 points in a game; he’d previously had at least one game with 37-plus points in every postseason since Kerr arrived.
Subpar for Steph is still just about the peak for anyone else. He’s the betting favorite to win that missing Finals MVP award. But at least over the course of this season, he might not have put forth a better performance than Tatum.
The Celtics wing elevated his game to a new level this season—and again in the playoffs, when he was the best player in a series with Kevin Durant and went toe-to-toe with Giannis Antetokounmpo in a season-saving Game 6 in Milwaukee. Just like Curry, he won the conference finals MVP award.
Yet even Tatum has suffered from some inconsistency in the postseason, with that 46-point high against the Bucks, but also multiple sloppy games with seven turnovers. In Game 3 against the Bucks and Game 3 against the Heat, he scored 20 combined points on 7-for-33 shooting. Whichever of the two team leaders can maintain the most consistent game-to-game stardom in the Finals could prove decisive.
2. Can the Warriors find easy buckets against Boston’s transition defense?
Tatum’s been great, but the Celtics reached the Finals on the strength of their team defense—perhaps the best since the Pistons’ in the mid-aughts. The Celtics led the NBA in defensive rating in the 2021-22 regular season, and in the playoffs, Boston’s held its opponents to an average of 6.5 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season outputs.
Boston is even better against set offenses, when its collective length and lack of weak links allows the unit to shut down opposing stars. The Celtics have limited their opponents this postseason to just 87.5 points per 100 half-court plays, per Cleaning the Glass. For context, that’s even less production than the 88.6 per 100 that the worst half-court offenses in the regular season (the Pistons and Thunder) managed.
But the Celtics defense has one weak spot: its offense. That’s because the team’s penchant for turnovers can gift the opponents easy points before the Boston defense gets set. The Celtics are allowing an extra 3.6 points per 100 possessions in transition in the postseason, per CtG—the worst mark for any team that reached the second round.
That disparity was readily apparent in the conference finals. When Boston turned the ball over and gave Miami easy fast break points, the Heat could score enough to win. When Boston took care of the ball, conversely, Miami had no chance to generate meaningful offense. The Celtics averaged 18.7 turnovers in the three games they lost to the Heat, versus 11.5 in the four games they won.
The Warriors’ offense, suffice it to say, is better than Miami’s, with much scarier shooters and healthier playmakers. Golden State has scored an average of 7.0 more points per 100 possessions than its opponents allowed in the regular season—meaning, essentially, that its offense has been as relatively great in the playoffs as Boston’s defense. Yet the Celtics theoretically have the guard and wing defenders—starting with Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart—to harry the Warriors’ beautiful game.
That’s why the Warriors’ ability to run off steals and misses will be so crucial in these Finals. Golden State hasn’t actually mustered an effective transition attack in 2021-22, ranking in the bottom half of the league in transition points in both the regular season and postseason. But anyone who’s watched a Warriors playoff game in the past decade knows how debilitating their transition 3s can be—especially in front of a delirious home crowd that knows just how to lift Curry and Thompson during game-breaking runs.
3. Can the Celtics successfully target Curry with the Smart-Tatum pick-and-roll?
On the other end of the floor, the Celtics’ most frequent pick-and-roll combination this postseason is Al Horford screening for Tatum. But the Warriors likely won’t be fazed by that set; if Green guards Horford when the starting lineups are on the floor, he’ll welcome the switch onto Tatum.
But the Celtics’ other go-to is Tatum screening for Smart, or vice versa. And against a Warriors team that mostly used Curry to guard Smart in their regular-season meetings, that option could prove more appealing. Curry is used to being targeted much more often in the playoffs than the regular season, and he should expect more of the same in this series.
He might be game enough to stop the Celtics’ pet plays. Out of 36 players who have guarded the screener on at least 100 plays this postseason, Curry ranks 18th in points allowed (0.97 points per possession), per Second Spectrum. That isn’t bad—and certainly better than Jordan Poole (1.37), who ranks last among the group.
But it’s also nowhere near the figures for Kevon Looney (0.81) or Green (0.86), who both rank in the top five. Boston will need to pick on the Warriors’ guards because it won’t get anywhere by going after their bigs. As a source from a team that has attacked Curry in a previous postseason told me, “We were hunting him partly because the rest of their defenders were so good.”
The Warriors’ best players should mostly match up well with the Celtics’ offensive threats, with Green on Horford, Curry on Smart, and Andrew Wiggins taking the Tatum assignment after guarding Luka Doncic in the conference finals. The Warriors boast the league’s no. 2 defense, after all, behind only Boston’s.
But Jaylen Brown stands out; with Gary Payton II injured (but possibly returning at some point during the Finals), Brown will have the opportunity to attack either Poole or a less athletic Thompson. Brown is inconsistent and a shaky ball handler—but he also has a proven ability to score a bunch of buckets quickly when he has space to be aggressive with the ball. To score enough points to win against the Warriors’ underrated defense, Boston will need to get Curry switched onto Tatum, and for Brown to win his matchups against Golden State’s other dynamic guards.