The Boston Celtics have torn through the playoffs, eliminating each team that’s ousted them in the last three postseasons. After a seven-game slugfest with the Miami Heat, the C’s are in Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2010, led by Jason Tatum, who is making a strong case for entry into superstardom, averaging 27 PPG this postseason as one of the best offensive weapons.
But none of that will matter starting tomorrow night as Boston has no chance against the Golden State Warriors.
As the Dallas Mavericks recently found out, the Warriors are in a completely different class now that they’re healthy and at full strength. The Celtics deserve their flowers for reaching the mountain top, but reality doesn’t change. It took seven games for them to dispatch the Heat’s anemic offense. While the Heat overly depend on Jimmy Butler’s limited offense, the Warriors have three Hall-of-Famers at their disposal, a deep bench full of two-way studs, an emerging star in Jordan Poole, and Andrew Wiggins, who is having a career renaissance after limiting Luka Dončić in the Western Conference finals. Also, the Warriors have a combined 123 games of NBA Finals appearances to the Celtics’ 0.
No team had a sharper turnaround than the Boston Celtics. On Jan. 6 the Celtics lost to the Knicks in New York on a buzzerbeater by R.J. Barrett. Tatum has referenced that early 2022 loss as the low point for the team, and for himself, as he was guarding Barrett’s shot attempt. However, the Celtics went on a tear since that game, which included a 24-point ass-whooping of the Knicks two days later. From that Jan. 6 Knicks game, Boston went 33-10, a blistering turnaround from their 18-21 start.
The Warriors, meanwhile, have returned to relevancy after two years of Lottery-bound losing. The recent losing was a new feeling for this team and has seemingly revived their underdog status and given them new motivation. It was also no fault of the team performance or roster construction that they sucked these last two years. Significant injuries to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson limited their firepower. But it also gave the Warriors a chance to retool their roster. They brought on Andrew Wiggings, who has provided the team with their best two-way perimeter leader since prime Andre Igoudala.
Outside of the Celtics’ Big 3 of Tatum, secondary star Jaylen Brown, and Defensive Player-of-the-Year Marcus Smart, the Celtics are the deepest team in the East. This includes defensive maestro Robert Williams aka Time Lord, grizzled veteran Al Horford, freshly acquired sharpshooter Derrick White, sharpshooting youngster Payton Pritchard, and tough bench subs Daniel Theis and Grant Williams. They have shooting, toughness, and playmaking at every position, making them a difficult two-way team under rookie head coach Ime Udoka.
Speaking of Udoka, he is the first rookie head coach to reach the NBA Finals since Ty Lue in 2016. Udoka has inspired the Celtics to play team ball while establishing a pecking order the overrated Brad Stevens didn’t have the stones to do. For example, he’s positioned Smart as the lead facilitator instead of playing off-ball as he did under Stevens. Smart has returned to an on-ball role, something he thrived at in high school at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas. As the Celtics’ point guard, he has replaced former Celtics point guard, Dennis Schröder, who seemed to be as much of a cancer off the court as he was on. This has allowed Tatum and Brown to flourish on the offensive end, allowing Smart to decide who’s hot hand to feed.
Smart will be facing a different beast this series in Steph Curry, who’s in search of his first-ever Finals MVP. Curry is not Kyle Lowry; he will not wade in the corner, too hobbled to drive inside. Curry is playing out of his mind right now and will keep Smart busy the entire series, taking away his ability to play the passing lanes as a free safety, help-side defender. As well, the Warriors are sure to seek out mismatches against Horford on defense. The aging veteran has lost more than a step on defense, and Draymond Green’s three-point ability will keep Horford monitoring the perimeter, unlike Bam Adebayo, whose flat-footed, unpolished offensive game allowed Horford to stay in the paint. This will make it harder for the Celtics to keep Warriors penetrators away from the basket when Williams isn’t in the game.
The Celtics and Warriors were Nos. 1 and 2 in defensive rating this season, respectively. They were also the two deepest teams in this year’s playoffs. This should not be seen as a slight toward the Celtics deserving of reaching the Finals. They proved their mettle by climbing through the Eastern Conference. But the Warriors have the advantage in the core of this team being here before and winning three times. While Udoka has been a revelation this season, Kerr’s resume has locked him into being named a Top 25 Coach of all-time, which was announced this season. While the Celtics have two bucket-getters, the Warriors have four. Tatum should see a lot of Wiggins, who just finished giving Luka Dončić the toughest show of defense of his young career. The Warriors’ experience, firepower, defense, and leadership from the sidelines give them the advantage in this series. This series shouldn’t go further than six games, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if it only went five. Especially if “Game 6 Klay” makes an appearance earlier than usual.
The Celtics would have to overcome superior coaching, a better bench unit, four All-Stars (three of which are future Hall-of-Famers), and Golden State’s home-court advantage. This feels highly unlikely. It’s more realistic Golden State adds a fourth championship to this core’s already legendary resume.The Celtics are on their way to being a regular contender for the championship. But this season has been an over-achievement and a loss in the Finals won’t diminish their accomplishments, it only fortifies their future.