The stage is finally set for the 2022 NBA Finals. On one side, a revamped Golden State Warriors team looks to re-assert its dominance from the past decade and continue a dynastic run.
On the other end, it's a Boston Celtics squad led by an All-Star duo that's still baby-faced in the eyes of their opponents, a returning veteran who finally made it over the Conference Finals hump, the best defence in the league and a first-year head coach with everything to prove.
Will the Warriors build on an already impressive modern legacy? Or will the Celtics start an era of their own?
Let's dive in.
Season series: Tied 1-1
Quick Tape (after Round 3)
Warriors: Coming off 4-1 win over Dallas | No. 1 offence | No. 6 defence | No. 2 net rating
Celtics: Coming off 4-3 win over Miami | No. 8 offence | No. 2 defence | No. 1 net rating
To win title: GSW -160, BOS +130 (Courtesy of FanDuel at time of publication)
Warriors Bench: Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Nemanja Bjelica, Moses Moody, Otto Porter Jr. (GTD), Andre Iguodala (GTD), Gary Payton II (GTD),
Celtics Bench: Derrick White, Grant Williams, Daniel Theis, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Nik Stauskas
Franchise titles: GSW - 6, BOS - 17
Franchise Finals appearances: GSW - 12, BOS - 22
Last won: GSW - 2018, BOS - 2008
Rings on each roster: GSW - 14, BOS - 0
Players with All-Star selections: GSW - 5, BOS - 3
Pulse of the Warriors
It was a long road back to the Finals for these Warriors. Since losing in 2019, Kevin Durant left for a new team, Thompson missed two-and-a-half seasons, Curry missed a full season of his own and the team fell short of the playoffs twice.
But they stuck with it and proved this dynasty is not over.
“This one is very sweet, because of where we were in 2019 … (we) never lost the faith, but (we) understood how hard of a process it was going to be to climb the mountain again” said Curry after defeating the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 last round.
“After being counted out, ‘dynasty’s over’ and all of those things, to be back here… it’s fantastic,” said Green.
The Warriors are back. And after an underwhelming end to the regular season, an unchallenging first-round series and a shaky Round 2, they quelled any doubts in the Conference Finals by playing their best basketball yet against a rolling Mavericks team.
Curry averaged 23.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists, shooting .439 from three. Green continues to anchor a strong defence and facilitate on offence. Thompson found his groove down the stretch, culminating in a 32-point performance in Game 5. Wiggins, with his defence and dunk that shook the basketball world in Game 3, and Looney, who pulled down 19 offensive rebounds over the five games, have been stars in their roles.
Off the bench? Poole averaged 16.4 points while shooting .636 (!) from the field and .400 from three.
Add home court advantage (where they're unbeaten in the playoffs) and a wealth of experience on their side in these Finals, and the Warriors must be feeling pretty good.
Pulse of the Celtics
If it's not the aptly named Larry Bird Trophy winner Jayson Tatum, it's Jaylen Brown, or Marcus Smart, or Derrick White, or Grant Williams — simply put, the Celtics have been as good as they are because of their depth.
Tatum is averaging 27 points per game in these playoffs, but has been held to 10 points on more than one occasion. Still, Boston's able to have multiple high-scoring players — Brown and Smart both dropped 24 points in the Game 7 win over Miami on top of Tatum's 26.
Add that to the fact Boston has elite defending from multiple players on the floor, including defensive player of the year Smart as well as Robert Williams, who dealt with injury throughout the season but is one of the best rim protectors in the league and kept Bam Adebayo at bay during the Eastern Conference Finals.
With multiple players on the floor able to pass, shoot, rebound, defend and play physical, Boston is one of the most well-rounded teams in the league, which is what propelled them past teams like Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami on the way to the Finals.
What's at stake for Golden State
Win or lose in these Finals, it looks like a successful post-Durant era is here to stay in Golden State.
All key players, except Looney (UFA), are signed for next season, where the team will have this whole playoff run behind them and a full campaign ahead to gel, instead of having to quickly find chemistry like this year. Poole, Kuminga and Wiseman should only get better. Curry, Thompson and Green are still playing at a high level. This doesn’t feel like their last chance at a title, they could be even stronger next season.
That said, can you imagine they won the title and opened next season as favourites? Four titles for Curry & Co. with a good chance at a fifth in an era with LeBron James?
It’s also an opportunity to prove they can win without Durant again, and bring home a title to Chase Center for the first time.
The Warriors are already one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties. At stake here is a chance for it to be that much more legendary.
What's at stake for Boston
Other than the fact that Boston could get back in front of the rival Los Angeles Lakers in the "all-time titles" race with a record 18th title, the Celtics also have the chance to prove that their drafting and development strategy has paid off.
Tatum, Smart, Brown, Grant and Rob Williams were all draft picks by the Celtics within the last 10 years, with Boston opting to keep much of its young talent despite first-round playoff exits and underperforming in the eyes of many.
Now, with their talent developed and Udoka finding his rhythm with his rotation from starters to the bench, the Celtics have a team that wasn't built through trades and large contracts, but rather through "the process" that many other teams — even those in the same conference — envy as their strategies have not worked out the same.
Finally getting over the Eastern Conference Finals hump for the first time in over a decade, Boston can prove that its team is not only a contender in the East but a contender that the rest of the NBA will need to watch out for, and for many years to come.
Key stat for Golden State
11.9 – Golden State’s net rating over seven games in clutch situations this post-season. It’s by no means an astronomical number, but it is significant when compared to Boston’s net rating of minus-1.5 over 10 games in the clutch – which is defined as when a team is within five points of its opponent in the last five minutes of a game.
The Warriors also have a plus-94 differential in the fourth quarter this post-season, and should have the edge if a game comes down to the wire.
Key stat for Boston
17.2 – Boston has been plus-17.2 in the second quarter, which leads the playoffs, as well as plus-8.4 in the fourth quarter, making the Celtics 10-1 when leading after the third quarter and 2-5 when trailing.
As said previously, the Celtics tend to have trouble coming back from an early deficit, but can be lethal if they manage to find a scoring rhythm and come alive in the fourth quarter, just like Jayson Tatum in Game 7 against Miami.
Matchup to watch
Stephen Curry vs. Marcus Smart. Flashback to the last time these teams played in March when Smart dove for a loose ball and fell on Curry’s ankle in the process, knocking the Warriors star out for the final 12 games of the regular season.
Well now Curry is back, with a Magic Johnson West Finals MVP Trophy in his bag, but is still searching for a first iconic Finals performance and a first Finals MVP despite his three rings.
Smart will be tasked with stopping Curry, who’s the engine of the Warriors’ offence. Though Smart had to come to his own defence by saying “I’m not a dirty player” after injuring Curry’s ankle, there’s no doubt he’s bringing the same aggressive energy to this Finals matchup.
Will Curry finally have an iconic Finals, or does Smart slow him down and show why he’s the DPOY?
Warriors win if...
They find a way to score on this remarkable Celtics defence. Boston's defence is allowing just 101 points per game these playoffs, Golden State's offence is scoring 114.5 per game. Something tells us that number will fall somewhere in between, but who's it likely to favour?
The Warriors also have a very good defence, and should be able to keep the Celtics from exploding on that end, but they'll need to find some cracks in Boston's defence — which has done an excellent job slowing down some of the game's best stars all post-season.
If Rob Williams is not 100 per cent, which appears to be the case, that would work in the Warriors' favour by removing a true threat at the rim.
Celtics win if...
The Celtics have one of the best defences in the league, but they had a hard time stopping post-season Jimmy Butler from dropping 40-plus points on multiple occasions, which forced a Game 7 and almost lost them the Eastern Conference title.
Now, the Celtics will go up against the infamous Splash Brothers, and will have to watch for Draymond Green on both sides of the ball including hunting for rebounds, and other lethal impact players like Jordan Poole and the return of Gary Payton II and potentially Andrew Wiggins for this series.
When the Celtics are aggressive and get under their opponents' skin, they easily force turnovers that turn into baskets and force unbalanced shots that tend to miss. As long as the Celtics can get ahead early, they find a way to win — they never once trailed in Game 7 against Miami.
One bold prediction for Golden State
Andre Iguodala returns, makes a clutch defensive play.
What's the NBA Finals without a significant play involving Iguodala? The 38-year-old hasn’t played since Round 1 due to a neck injury but is slowly progressing to a return, and if he does, there are few people coach Steve Kerr will trust more on a key defensive possession. We’re betting Iguodala comes in and makes a big play when it matters most, as he’s done so many times before.
P.S. If a game comes down to a final shot for the Warriors, we are NOT taking Iguodala over Curry.
One bold prediction for Boston
Al Horford will come alive even more in the NBA Finals, though he has seen spurts of promising two-way play throughout this run, including a double-double in Game 3 against the Heat in which he shot 50 per cent from the field.
Usually, he makes his mark in other ways and is a more demanding presence rebounding, blocking and playing defence, but this time around the NBA Finals means more and Horford knows he will have to step up.
This is the first time in Horford's career he has reached the NBA Finals despite a 15-year playing career, and he will be doing everything in his power to make his first trip to the Finals worth it.
Daniel: Warriors in 7. The Warriors have home-court advantage. They’re experienced, well-rested and hitting their stride at the perfect time. But it'll be close.
Hayley: Celtics in 7. Their hard road through the East means they won’t be the freshest versions of themselves, but the Celtics have what it takes on both sides of the ball to keep their run to the Larry O’Brien alive.