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2022 NBA Finals: How the teams stack up and storylines to watch

Who ya got?

Who ya got?
Illustration: Shutterstock (Getty Images)

The NBA Finals are finally upon us, and it’s one of the better matchups anyone could’ve hoped for. There is plenty of star power, and each game should be tightly contested as both teams are known for their stifling defense. The league should be thoroughly pleased with the series we’re set to embark on.

This series features two teams with a core group of players drafted and developed by these organizations. We have Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum in Boston. For Golden State, we have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Each trio consists of two primary scorers and a Defensive Player of the Year. And what this also proves is that you don’t have to go the “super team” route to be successful.

Golden State tried that with Kevin Durant and was successful, but now they find themselves back where they started. Boston also plucked a star from another team in Kyrie Irving and dropped him into the equation, and it didn’t work out for them as well as it did for the Warriors. The irony of Durant and Irving’s previous teams meeting in the NBA Finals only a couple of years removed from their exits, though, is priceless.

Winning legacies

Commissioner Adam Silver is likely pleased about this year’s Finals. We have two franchises with championship pedigrees and some of the brightest stars to play in The Association over the last decade. The Celtics and Warriors both have diehard fan bases that aren’t afraid to let you know just how rabid they can get.

For Boston, another Finals victory would be championship No. 18 and push them one ahead of rival Los Angeles Lakers. This group of Celtics has been at the doorstep of the finals for a few years now, having played in four of the last six Eastern Conference finals. It took adding a new head coach to the mix in Ime Udoka to get this squad over the hump.

I’m not sure the luck of the Irish will be enough based on Boston’s opponent. Golden State is competing in their sixth Finals in eight years, and first since 2019. The Warriors are the league’s most recent dynasty, making five consecutive Finals, winning three titles.

Most fans outside of the Bay Area had a fork in the Warriors, assuming their time was over. If not for injuries over the past two years, who knows what may have been? Another championship for the Warriors moves them past the Bulls for third all-time with seven. But the Celtics are the only NBA franchise with a winning record (9-7) against the Warriors since their dynasty began in 2014-15. So, they do have that on their side.

This will be the second meeting between the Warriors and Celtics in the Finals but the first in 58 years. The last time was in the 1964 championship series during the Warriors’ first stint in San Francisco. That matchup was headlined by two of the greatest players ever, pitting Oakland native Bill Russell against Wilt Chamberlain. Boston won that series in five games. They also played in three other playoff series before the Warriors headed west from Philadelphia in 1962.

Matchups and storylines

More than ever the NBA has become about the storylines behind the game on the court. During Golden State’s run of dominance between 2014-2019, each finals matchup (aside from the first title) had a built-in storyline before anyone even touched the court.

Whether it was the perceived beef between Curry and LeBron James (it was their fan bases more than them) or the inner turmoil surrounding the team in 2019 on their way to losing the finals in six games to Toronto, there was always something juicy happening that added to the intrigue.

I’m not sure how juicy it is this time, but there is a storyline to follow that began to take shape in March. A clip that’s been replayed all week leading up to this matchup between Golden State and Boston. Smart dove for a loose ball and accidentally rolled up Curry’s ankle on the play. You can debate all day whether this was a dirty play. All I know is whenever Smart guards Curry in Game 1 tonight, that San Francisco crowd will let him know they’re in the building.

After all, that is one of the key matchups in the series. This year’s DPOY against the two-time league MVP. No one expects Smart to shut Steph down, but his job will be to make sure anything Curry does is contested. Smart is known for his physicality. He’ll need to get rough with Curry and make him feel his presence on each possession for Boston to have a chance.

Another big matchup of this series will take place on the wings. Tatum and Brown will be up against Thompson and Andrew Wiggins. By the end of this series, these four players will be tired of seeing each other. That’s how much I expect them to be facing up between the four of them.

I see Wiggins being assigned primarily to Tatum to start, but at some point, he’ll probably guard whichever guy has the hot hand. On the flip side, I feel like Brown will have the duty of holding Thompson since the Celtics will want to keep him in check. Once Klay gets hot, good luck cooling him down.

Wiggins was great in the Dallas series showing off his two-way skills and proving to be a difference-maker for this Warriors team. This time Wiggins’ defense will be far more critical than his offense since the Celtics have two legit stars that can break out for 30 or 40 points. Against the Mavs, Luka Dončić was the only real threat to score 40 or more in multiple games in that series. These Celtics are a different beast.

Boston has the edge over Golden State in the size department in the frontcourt, with Al Horford and Robert Williams III battling Green and Kevon Looney inside. Besides Horford and Williams, Boston can throw Daniel Theis at the Warriors for more size, as well as Grant Williams, although he tends to float out to the perimeter. And while Draymond can play down low and, on the perimeter, his rebounding will be vital against the Celtics.

Golden State is probably just as deep as Boston, but their depth is mainly on the wings and backcourt. This is where Boston could find trouble like many other teams that faced the Warriors this season.

This is where Jordan Poole enters the equation. Poole has become that third scoring option that most teams cannot account for defensively. He isn’t K.D., but he’s done a great nonetheless. And if Wiggins also gets going offensively, the Celtics could find themselves in a deep hole.

Boston will need all the scoring help it can muster up against Golden State. Other key role players should be the Celtics’ Derrick White and Payton Pritchard. Pritchard’s three-point shooting could prove crucial in matching shots with the Splash Brothers. White got hotter as the Eastern Conference finals against Miami got more intense. He scored double figures in three of the last four games of that series.

Otto Porter, Gary Payton II, and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala could play substantial roles for the Warriors once they get on the court. All three players are listed as questionable for Game 1, as they’ve been dealing with various injuries recently. I think Porter will play, but I’m not as confident about the other two.

Porter brings a veteran presence and the ability to hit shots when called upon. Payton hasn’t played since Dillon Brooks knocked him out of the Grizzlies series with a fractured elbow. GP2 adds another outstanding on-ball defender to the lineup for the Warriors. Iguodala may not be the athlete he once was, but he’s another defender, and he’s been here before and is another piece of experience to Golden State’s puzzle.

Let’s not forget about the coaching matchup. Four-time champion Steve Kerr and rookie head coach Ime Udoka, appearing in his first NBA Finals. Both coaches are former players in the league, and they both ran the court for Gregg Popovich during their careers. Udoka was also an assistant under Popovich for seven years. It’s the old guard against the new guard in this series.

So, who you got?

Something tells me this will be a tight series all the way through. Whether it goes 5, 6, or 7 games. I don’t see a sweep happening on either side. For Boston to win the series, I think they must steal Game 1 in San Francisco. The Warriors have been off for a week and could come out a bit rusty. If that’s the case, the Celtics need to pounce on ‘em and not let them breathe for a second.

A Celtics loss in Game 1 means they’re already in that hole I mentioned earlier. And anytime Boston builds a big lead in this series, they can’t do what they did against the Heat. When you let this Golden State team hang around, they make you pay. Just ask the Mavs and Grizzlies about that.

Tatum and Brown also can’t be magicians in the second half. In multiple third and fourth quarters against Miami, either Tatum or Brown seemed to make themselves disappear. Miami was a great defensive team, but sometimes the duo just wasn’t taking enough shots in the second half. If that continues, this may be a short series, which I don’t expect.

Boston will need to take full advantage of their size and make the Warriors work extra hard on the boards. While Golden State doesn’t have the same size, they were also smaller than Memphis and routinely bested them on the glass. So, the Celtics will need to make it a point to keep Looney out of the paint. He grabbed 22 rebounds in the close-out game against Memphis and 18 to close out Dallas.

These Celtics will need to capitalize on any perimeter mismatch on the offensive end. So, whenever Curry gets stuck on one of Boston’s offensive threats, they need to be aggressive and not let him off the hook by settling for deep 3s. You’ve got to make Steph pay. And making him pay means making him guard for more than two seconds. Drive on him, make him reach, get him in early foul trouble. You can’t let Steph get comfortable on either end of the floor.

To answer the question, I’ll take the Warriors in six games. Seven games wouldn’t shock me, but I feel like most of the games will be close with five minutes left, and that’s where the experience of Golden State will shine through.

Boston has recently been to multiple conference finals, but this is the NBA Finals. This is the biggest stage the NBA has, and the Warriors have multiple players who’ve been on this stage and won, 123 games to the Celtics’ 0. Experience isn’t everything, but it is something.

Finals MVP

Three words. Wardell Stephen Curry. It’s time for him to take home a Finals MVP and enter the doors of the NBA’s all-time Top 10 greatest players. It’s really the final piece missing from his storied legacy. Sure, his legacy is set, but adding a Finals MVP to everything else Curry has already accomplished would make him undeniably one of the Top 10 players to ever grace the NBA hardwood. 

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