Two Important Finals Questions
And some other thoughts ahead of tonight's Game 1!
Programming Note: I was a guest on the podcast Charity Stripe Commentary with Trey Hill from HoopSocial. We gave some quick NBA Finals preview thoughts in the short 30-minute episode. Please check it out here if you’re interested! Thanks.
The Finals are nigh! They kick off this very night. Steph Curry will blow our minds, Jayson Tatum will try to cement his status as a top-five NBA player, and Marcus Smart’s decision-making will vacillate like a pendulum, flopping from genius to baffling and back again.
The Warriors started the season like vengeful gods before injuries slowed their roll. But quick playoff wins have given them a lot of time to rest and heal, and they are eager to regain their throne.
The Celtics have finally gotten past the Eastern Conference Finals on their fourth attempt in six years. They enter the Finals with questionable health but looked like the best team in the league for pretty much the entire calendar year.
These were the two best defenses in the league during the regular season. Despite Golden State’s penchant for fireworks and Boston’s star power, we could easily see another low-scoring series.
Key Question: Will the Celtics’ role players knock down open shots?
In many ways, the Miami Heat were excellent preparation for Boston. For one thing, Miami runs complicated off-ball actions to spring shooters open, much like Golden State. For another, they aggressively help off mediocre shooters to protect the paint and dare those shooters to beat them.
Golden State practically invented this style of defense in the 2015 playoffs against Memphis when they stationed giant Australian Andrew Bogut on 6’4” Tony Allen. Bogut completely ignored Tony Allen and used his immense size to wall off the paint in a one-man zone. Allen, the Grizzlies’ defensive ace, missed a few tentative jumpers, got benched, and barely saw the court for the rest of the series.
That tactical adjustment was merely the first step. Defenses all around the league have crept further and further away from bad shooters, mediocre shooters, and now even good shooters who aren’t willing to fire away at high volume. Boston’s Grant Williams saw this treatment from Miami and Milwaukee several times despite being a 40% shooter from deep in the regular season. Both teams gambled that he wouldn’t be eager to shoot ten long-balls per game (especially if he clanked the first one). Anyone who’s played basketball knows that being purposefully left open can get into a role player’s head: a few misses early can undermine brittle confidence.
All this is to say that Williams, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White, especially, will have an all-you-can-eat buffet of open threes. Look at how Miami runs away from White to encourage this shot (which he misses):
That strategy can backfire in obvious ways. Williams shot a solid 38% from three on a massive 45 attempts against Milwaukee, rising to the occasion. White struggled badly against Milwaukee from deep but went 6-10 in Games 6 and 7 against the Heat.
More than anyone else, Golden State has proven its faith in the math. If a game becomes a gunfight, the Warriors believe they’ve got the better artillery on their side. It’ll be up to Boston’s non-Jays to prove them wrong.
Key Question: Which Andrew Wiggins will show up?
Andrew Wiggins has had an up and down year, but he seems to be peaking at the right time.
After starting the season on a tear, playing excellent defense and shooting well enough from everywhere that he was named an All-Star starter, Wiggins entered a profound shooting slump. He ended March with 40/28/61 percent shooting splits for the month.
Wiggins looked skittish with the ball, hesitating when open or flinging up shots too quickly when covered. He became allergic to the free-throw line, avoiding contact like he didn’t want to catch cooties.
It wasn’t necessarily all his fault; the Warriors struggled in general. Injuries to several players (most notably Steph) and the reincorporation of Klay Thompson into the offense threw Golden State out of whack.
But something changed in April. Wiggins regained his shot and confidence, and the Warriors went 4-0, leading into an easy first-round matchup against the Nuggets in which Golden State’s entire starting five shot greater than 50% from the field.
Wiggins’ revived offensive touch is notable, but his rebounding has been this postseason's most significant development. He cracked five rebounds per game just once in his career, in 2019-2020, but he’s averaging 7.0 boards per game in these playoffs.
Picking up the trash (along with a similarly surging Kevon Looney) has prevented other teams from punishing the Warriors on the offensive glass. Andrew’s ability to keep dysoning up rebounds against a bigger Celtics team will be key to stymieing Boston’s attack. The C’s may struggle to score against Golden State in the halfcourt, and if they can’t get offensive rebounds, there won’t be many avenues for them to put up points.
Defensively, we know what we’re getting with Wiggins at this point. He’s proven to be a substantial deterrent to large wings, harassing Luka Doncic last series into his worst performance of the playoffs. For what it’s worth, in the single game Wiggins faced Boston this season, Jayson Tatum shot just 1-7 with Wiggins as the closest defender. Wiggins will undoubtedly pick up the Tatum assignment again, and Steve Kerr will likely keep Wiggins on the floor for every second that Tatum plays.
Wiggins entered the NBA with eye-popping athleticism and size, even in a league full of outliers. He’s one of the few who can physically match up with Tatum’s height, strength, and quickness without giving up a deficit anywhere. Here, he responds beautifully to Tatum’s quick spin by smacking a weak layup attempt off the glass like you might wave away an annoying mosquito:
If Wiggins can slow down Tatum, protect the glass, and provide steady scoring as a fourth option, the Warriors will be in great shape. That might sound like a lot, but Wiggins has been doing it all playoffs long.
I am dying to see what role Gary Payton has in this series for Golden State. He was on my All-Defensive Second-Team, where I proclaimed him the best on-ball defender in the NBA. If you haven’t heard, Boston has some issues dribbling the ball. Payton can get under opponents’ skins and fluster them by snatching their handle and their souls.
Robert Williams’ health is so vital to this series. Golden State has feasted on jumpers these playoffs, shooting an incredulous-guffaw-inducing 50% from the midrange, but the bouncy big man is so good at blocking jump shots (just ask poor Gabe Vincent, who was victimized several times in the Miami series) that he may be able to ruin some shooting percentages by himself. Williams didn’t look good in Game 7 against Miami, but Boston will hope the time off has helped him get right.
Boston will target Jordan Poole on defense and hope to get him switched onto Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum as often as possible. Poole’s offense has been too important to the Warriors for coach Kerr to take him off the court entirely, but his threatening game both on and off the ball makes him a critical piece in the chess match against this ferocious Boston halfcourt defense. Boston’s defensive assignments get much simpler if they can successfully play him off the court in crunch time.
We haven’t seen a truly incendiary game yet this postseason from Steph Curry, although he’s been steadily successful overall. He hasn’t had to play many minutes or go particularly hard since the Warriors have lost just four games in three rounds. But the Celtics are a different beast, and Curry will need to have at least one 40-pointer to pull out a tight game.
We may well see a game where these two teams combine for 40 turnovers, and it will likely be the most entertaining game in the series. Fun basketball isn’t always great basketball!
That’s it for now! Let’s hope for a close and entertaining series with lots for me to write about. Until next time, enjoy the basketball!