After seven months of NBA play, we’ve reached the final level for this season: the 2022 Finals. Whose legacy will be most impacted by the results? Who will win, and in how many games? Our crew digs into six major questions heading into the matchup between the Celtics and Warriors.
1. Is Jayson Tatum the best player in this series?
J. Kyle Mann: Tatum’s two-way and playmaking evolutions have been phenomenal, but Steph Curry is still basketball’s Voldemort: Say his name and defenses cringe. It’s pretty close, though, and at 24 years old that’s an impressive thing for Tatum.
Seerat Sohi: I give him the slight edge right now. He’s spent the postseason grinding through much more formidable defenses than the Warriors and locking down on the other end, while Curry’s magic shooting just hasn’t been as consistently reliable.
Zach Kram: Steph Curry is the best player in the series. But the very fact that I paused for a second when answering this question shows just how high Tatum has risen in the NBA ranks.
Dan Devine: With all due respect to Boston’s two-way iron man, who’s improved significantly as a floor-reading playmaker … no. I’m still going with the guy who’s outshooting and outproducing Tatum on a per-minute and per-possession basis in this postseason, whose constant application of vise-grip pressure on opposing defenses birthed and still breathes life into a dynasty, and who’s won two MVPs and three championships.
Tatum’s great. Steph is Steph.
Logan Murdock: Yes. Tatum’s been more consistent during the postseason than his star counterpart, Steph Curry, and at times, he’s had to carry a bigger offensive burden as Curry has struggled to find his shot.
Rob Mahoney: I mean, the dynastic superstar who made six of the last eight Finals is sitting right there. And I do mean made them; regardless of the outcome, every matchup Curry walks into becomes about Curry, solely from the attention and focus he requires every second that he’s on the floor. Tatum is awesome, and one of the league’s most balanced superstars. But he’s not that—at least not yet.
Wosny Lambre: Tatum’s shot creation, playmaking, and defense have been more effective this postseason than ever before—but he still won’t be the best player in this series. That’s Steph, who even at age 34 is playing at an all-time-great level.
Justin Verrier: It’s a new twist on an old favorite: In years past, the Warriors blowing out regular-season competition didn’t afford Steph the opportunities to pad his already sky-high offensive numbers; now, the Warriors handily dispatching their Western Conference competition has limited Steph’s big-game opportunities compared to what Tatum got trudging through a Game of Thrones battle each round. If we’re limiting ourselves to just what we’ve seen this postseason, Curry-Tatum is probably closer than most are willing to admit, especially when you factor in defense. But with a few signature performances from Steph along the way we wouldn’t even be asking the question.
2. Which non-Steph, non-Tatum player will have the biggest impact on this series?
Mahoney: Draymond Green. Breaking through the various fronts of Boston’s incredible defense is the tallest order Golden State faces in this series, which means a lot falls on Green—as the man at the center of all the Warriors’ pet actions—to direct the action toward whatever momentary weakness he can find. Flip to the other side of the ball and Green will again be in the middle of the frame, holding down the middle of Golden State’s defense and fending off bigger and more athletic opponents on the glass. No player in this series stands to be more consistently and crucially involved.
Lambre: Marcus Smart will be tasked with guarding the best offensive player of his generation in Curry. What Smart will have to do in screen navigation, both on- and off-ball, coupled with what he’ll be forced to deal with in isolation against Curry will be one of the determinant factors of the outcome of this series.
Verrier: Al Horford. He’s the key to Boston staying big, whether it’s walling off the rim with Robert Williams III in a super-sized frontcourt that propelled the Celtics to the league’s top-ranked defense; controlling the boards (9.6 rebounds per game this postseason, tops among remaining players) against a smaller Golden State front line; or forcing Kevon Looney, the only center-sized human left in the Warriors’ rotation, out onto the perimeter or to the bench.
Horford’s also been the stabilizing force for a Celtics team that has shot itself in the foot time and time again (and again, and again …), the guy who will score just enough to buoy the offense during droughts from Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and the guy who will rush back in transition—in his 44th minute of a Game 7, at nearly age 36—and force a poor shooter to attempt a pull-up 3 rather than an easy bucket at the rim.
Mann: Klay Thompson’s self-awareness on this stage could be huge, because it could swing in either direction. If he has it, he’ll be a damning factor to account for. If he doesn’t, how tempted will he be to force it?
Devine: Green. On defense, he’ll have to coordinate coverages against a Celtics squad that leads all teams who made it out of Round 1 in passes per game and runs opponents through off-ball screens nearly as frequently as the Warriors do. When the Dubs switch, he’ll have to hold up against Tatum, Brown, and Smart in isolation; when they don’t, he’ll have to keep Horford and Grant Williams from feasting on pick-and-pop jumpers, and fight Robert Williams III on the glass. On offense, he’ll have to pop Golden State’s shooters open with stiff screens, thread the needle to exploit any crack in Boston’s switching scheme, and push the pace to hunt early offense against a defense that’s been by far the stingiest half-court unit in the playoffs, but that ranks 13th among 16 postseason teams in points allowed per play in transition.
Green’s capable of being the best defensive player in the world and the playmaking heart of the league’s toughest offense to cover. To earn a fourth championship ring, he’ll have to be both.
Kram: Smart has the dual responsibilities of organizing Boston’s offense and defending Golden State’s most important player. His two-way play could decide the series, for better or for worse.
Sohi: Green. The key to beating Boston’s no. 1-ranked half-court defense will be in transition. As Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr., and Gary Payton II work their way back, the burden will be on Green to generate stops, secure rebounds, and push the ball up the floor.
Murdock: Andrew Wiggins. After guarding Ja Morant and Luka Doncic for extended periods during Golden State’s past two series, he’ll get a lot of time on Tatum and Brown. And with Steph, Klay, and Jordan Poole occasionally struggling to find their shot, Wiggins will be a welcome fourth scoring option for the top-ranked postseason offense.
3. Whose health will have a bigger impact on this series: Gary Payton II or Robert Williams III?
Devine: As helpful as it’ll be for Steve Kerr to be able to give Payton shifts on Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Derrick White, I think it’s Williams. His ability to dissuade drivers from entering the paint, prevent attempts at the rim, use his length to envelop guards on switches on the perimeter, and fly out to contest 3-pointers makes him a menacing piece for Ime Udoka to move around the chessboard; there’s a reason Boston has allowed 7.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Time Lord on the floor in these playoffs than when he’s been unavailable. The only time the Warriors offense hasn’t looked dominant in this postseason was when Memphis had Steven Adams plugging the paint and Jaren Jackson Jr. both protecting the rim and harassing shooters; a healthy Time Lord next to Horford might allow Boston to do the same, at an even higher level.
Sohi: Payton. Boston’s roster of replacement bigs (Al Horford, Grant Williams, Daniel Theis) has spelled Williams well enough through three rounds. Golden State needs as many perimeter defenders as it can get to hold Tatum, Brown, and Smart at bay.
Mahoney: Williams, though more or less by default. This isn’t really the matchup for Williams, and especially not for a version of Williams hobbled by a knee injury. Yet at least there’s a more recent body of work there and a higher, more established ceiling for how Williams can change a playoff game. It would be great to see Payton have a part to play in this series after fracturing his elbow in the second round, but let’s manage our expectations for a player who hasn’t yet been fully cleared, hypothetically filling a role in a stacked rotation after not playing basketball for almost a month.
Verrier: It’s Williams, who has the best defensive rating in the playoffs (98.5) among a potentially historic unit, but don’t overlook The Mitten. Whenever Kerr needs to solve a problem, he often looks to the little big man. Payton stabilized the Warriors when things got shaky against the Nuggets, even hitting six of eight 3s; and he started against the Grizzlies, in a Nü Death Lineup, until he was injured. If the Celtics’ size wears on the Warriors, don’t be surprised if Payton is Kerr’s first stab at a solution.
Kram: Payton was a more central member of the Warriors’ rotation when they faced the elite guards in the Western Conference, but his absence wouldn’t be as severe against the Celtics. On the other hand, Williams’s range and mobility could prove vital against the Warriors’ offensive motion machine, and he might fill a Tristan Thompson–circa-2016 role on the other end, gobbling up offensive rebounds to make the Warriors pay for going small.
Murdock: Williams. His ability to guard every position on the floor will be vital against a Golden State team that has one traditional big on its active roster. The Warriors will target Horford when Williams is resting, with Curry, Poole, and Wiggins looking for mismatches. If Williams is hobbled, Boston’s front line will be in for a long series.
Lambre: Williams will have to guard out in space against the Warriors’ “beautiful game” offense.
And because Boston’s isn’t the most effective half-court offense, Williams’s work on the offensive glass, against a fairly small Warriors front line, becomes of paramount importance.
Mann: Time Lord. His ability to quickly cover ground and clean up, alter, or deter at the back of Boston’s defense could be one of the key story lines.
4. What do you make of the fact that the Celtics are the only team with a winning record (9-7) against the Warriors since Steve Kerr took over?
Kram: Lest folks think this fun fact is solely a result of the Warriors’ down years between Finals runs, it’s not. Sure, the Celtics won all four meetings in those seasons, but they also went 3-3 against Golden State when Kevin Durant was on the roster, and 2-4 (with four close losses) in the Warriors’ other Finals seasons. Mainly, I think this track record shows that the Celtics’ defensive philosophy and personnel are a particularly adept match for the Warriors’ unique offensive philosophy and personnel. That clash of styles could make for a remarkably tense series.
Murdock: Brad Stevens coached the Celtics in 14 of the 16 contests against the Warriors during the Kerr era. Over the years, Kerr has been open about Stevens’s influence on his coaching philosophy, including how Kerr stole some of Stevens’s sideline out-of-bounds plays. Also, Boston’s switch-heavy defense, led by a wing-heavy roster, has disrupted Golden State’s offense.
Mann: I hesitate to read into it a ton because of the myriad variables that have been in play since 2014-15, but if you were looking for a through line there, it’s the Smart-Horford-Brown-Tatum core. In the past five seasons, Boston has allowed the fewest points per direct chance in the NBA when defending off-ball actions, according to Second Spectrum. They’re physical, they’re smart, and they have continuity among key pieces.
Devine: I think it tells us that, for most of the past decade, Boston’s had really good defenses featuring big and agile point-of-attack defenders (Smart, Avery Bradley) who could make things tough on Steph, flanked by lots of long, athletic, switchable, and heady defenders who can grind the gears of Golden State’s fluid and freewheeling offense. In individual games, at least. Now we get to see how it holds up over seven.
Mahoney: Not a ton. I think a record like that mostly speaks to the fact that Golden State and Boston have been good teams at roughly the same time, and that over that stretch the Celtics became iterative of the Warriors in the way most modern teams have. Boston’s league-leading defense is essentially a riff on the flexible, switch-heavy architecture that Golden State proved could work at a championship level. Now the Warriors will have to contend with what they made possible for an even bigger, longer, more athletic opponent.
Sohi: Physical, long, and mobile defenders who crash the glass and switch all positions have always had the best shot at mucking up the Warriors’ beautiful game, stifling movement, and altering long-range shots. Plus, Smart is among the best Curry defenders you could ask for.
Verrier: It’s a reminder of why the Celtics held on to the dream of a Brown-and-Tatum-led team for so long. The Warriors proved the value of shooting and switching seven years ago. Boston was one of the few teams lucky enough and committed enough to prioritize those players at the top of the draft; do the hard work of developing them and playing through their growing pains; and then (finally) supplementing them with other switchy, ostensibly shooting role players.
Lambre: I make absolutely nothing of it. I don’t think the Celtics have been a team the Warriors have had a ton of respect for, and so I find it hard to believe they were taking these previous matchups all that seriously. I do believe that posture will change after playing this series.
5. Whose legacy will be impacted the most by the result of this series?
Verrier: The question looming over the Celtics through this postseason—and really, for the past few years—is “How good is Jayson Tatum?” Propelling Boston past a gauntlet of established Eastern Conference superstars has vaulted him into the upper crust of current-day players, but a title, at age 24, would elevate him to a rarefied air: The only other players to win a Finals MVP that young are Magic Johnson (twice), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Kawhi Leonard, Bill Walton, and Dennis Johnson.
Kram: Another title would be Curry’s fourth, tying him with LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal and moving him just one behind Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant for the most titles for a star since Michael Jordan. With another win now, then, it’s not unreasonable to think Curry could eventually retire with the most titles in the 21st century.
Mahoney: Weirdly enough: Andrew Wiggins. The pivot to winning player is already complete, but Wiggins could really start to redefine his historical reputation with a title. Nothing magnifies the contributions of a supporting player like a championship, and the way Wiggins has defended superstars and thrived in his role is more than worthy of that kind of focus. This is a chance to be more than a former no. 1 pick who didn’t quite pan out. Winning it all frames an entire career on different terms.
Devine: In terms of establishing one? Horford, one of only 14 players with more than 12,000 points, 7,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists, and 1,000 blocks in their careers. Ten of the other 13 are already in the Hall of Fame, and the other three (LeBron James, Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki) will be. Basketball-Reference’s model, however, pegs Horford as having just a 12.2 percent likelihood of enshrinement. In fairness, that model considers only NBA accomplishments, excluding the two NCAA championships that bolster Horford’s case significantly; still, though, a ring would help.
In terms of burnishing one? Curry, who, with another chip, would join Russell, Kareem, Magic, Michael, LeBron, and Duncan as just the seventh player in NBA history with four rings and two MVPs. In other words: the bulk of the all-time top 10 that another title might start making it pretty tough to keep Steph out of.
Lambre: Jayson Tatum will be minted forever if he’s the driving force behind a Finals victory. Think of what having a single ring has done for guys like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett or Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups. It’s heightened their perceptions by orders of magnitude. The big guys on Golden State, in contrast, are already Made Men.
Murdock: Steph Curry. At 34, there aren’t many more opportunities to play on this stage. A fourth ring would give him more chips than Larry Bird; tie him with LeBron James, the biggest rival of his career; and earn bragging rights over Kevin Durant at the Warriors’ reunion party when their careers are all said and done.
Mann: Tatum’s could be vaulted the farthest distance. And although the increments at the top are smaller, it’s so difficult for a player like Steph to go from great to truly among the greatest. That said, I think it’s Andrew Wiggins. What if Wiggins plays well in this series and gets a ring? It completely flips the narrative of his career!
Sohi: Tatum, because of what he’s already done: 27 points per game, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.9 assists, while locking up Kevin Durant and hitting Game 7 daggers to close out Milwaukee and Miami, two of the toughest defenses in the NBA. Winning a ring against the mighty Warriors would cap off a pantheon playoff performance.
6. Who wins and in how many games?
Mann: Warriors in seven. I think the decision-making of Boston’s creators is going to be really tested in this series, and although they play with a freeness that can be frustrating, Golden State will be a much more offensively competent team than anyone the Celtics have faced thus far.
Kram: Celtics in six. Boston had the league’s best point differential in the regular season, according to Cleaning the Glass, and has navigated a more difficult path to the Finals. The computers have been right so far. Let’s stick with them for one more round.
Devine: Warriors in seven. The Celtics’ size, athleticism, and lack of defensive weak links make them a hell of a matchup for Golden State, but they’ve racked up more miles and damage in getting to this point; if Smart and Time Lord are compromised, it’ll be tough for Boston to maintain the snare-drum-tight defensive alignment necessary to deal with Curry and the Warriors’ motion offense for seven games. I think Tatum can be the best player in a championship series, and that Brown, Smart, and Horford can meet a moment of this magnitude. But I know Steph, Draymond, and Klay can.
Sohi: Warriors in seven. I’m excited to see the defensive coverages Ime Udoka throws at them, but the Warriors are problem solvers at heart. With Thompson rounding into form, their perimeter health slowly replenishing, and home-court advantage, they’ll discover enough openings to take the series.
Mahoney: Warriors in six. Boston figures to be the toughest matchup of Golden State’s current run, but being better suited to chasing Curry and Co. is very different from managing to get the better of them four times in seven—especially when the Warriors have dropped just four games in the entire postseason to date. The team in a better rhythm, in this case, is also the healthier team and the more proven one. It may not be much more complicated than that.
Lambre: Celtics in six. Boston’s defense poses major problems for the Warriors; it has both the collective athleticism and the ability to execute its game plan like Golden State probably hasn’t seen since the Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals. That series has kind of faded from our collective memory, but I would argue no team has made the Warriors look worse than they did through those first four games, even if Golden State did eventually come back to win.
Murdock: Warriors in six. Boston’s brilliance has occasionally been offset by curious crunch-time play during the postseason, including their collapse in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee. And while the Warriors have taken their lumps, they’ve leaned on experience to close out swing games against Memphis and Dallas. Boston may be the more talented bunch, but Golden State’s experience will nullify that this year.
Verrier: Warriors in six. Boston is almost tailor-made to face Golden State, with a switching defense as devastating as the 2018 Rockets, and a scorer capable of going shot for shot with Curry if need be. But it’s hard to look past the institutional knowledge culled from five straight Finals, or the images of the Celtics fumbling away wins, leads, and the ball throughout this postseason.