It’s finally here, the biggest series in basketball and this season sees a fascinating match-up between the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics.
The Celtics have finally got out of the Eastern Conference at the third time of trying in the past five years. Their young core has been patient waiting for the opportunity to get to this point and can win an NBA-record 18th franchise title with success in the coming two to three weeks.
As for the Warriors, their squad contains veterans of three title-winning teams in 2015, 2017 and 2018. After defeat in the NBA Finals, they have spent two years decimated by injuries but they are back together and now back on the biggest stage of all.
It promises to be a tantalising series and you can watch every single game live on Sky Sports – followed by repeats at 8am the following morning.
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Both teams are elite on defense, with Boston finishing first (106.2) and Golden State second (106.6) in defensive rating in the regular season. The Celtics have improved on that in the NBA Playoffs moving to a rating of 105.1, the second best mark in the postseason. The Warriors’ improvement has come on the offensive end in the playoffs, where they lead all teams on a 116.1 offensive rating, a four-point improvement from the regular season.
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It’s very much masters versus apprentices though – the Warriors’ core has amassed 123 games of NBA Finals experience whereas the Celtics do not have a single player who has played on this stage before. That’s the largest disparity in experience in NBA Finals history.
In sport though, sometimes fearlessness on the big stage can trump the experience of having tasted success on it before. Either way, it promises to be an interesting clash between two teams who can do a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor and should provide some unmissable basketball.
Success though, comes down to how the players on both teams perform so let’s analyse where the series might be won and lost with regards to the individuals and the key battles on court.
Curry and Tatum: Two transcendent superstars
Both these teams are fortunate enough to boast a superstar first scoring option that they look to for inspiration when all other sources of offense fail.
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Stephen Curry is the greatest shooter in the history of basketball and is the hyperactive conduit which powers the Warriors offense from the point guard position.
Jayson Tatum is Boston’s go-to man from the small forward position, capable of scoring in any type of way or situation, as well as being a key contributor in the Celtics’ elite defense. He earned All-NBA First Team honours this year, proof of how the 24-year-old has thrust himself right into the top tier of NBA players.
He has been threatening this level of play ever since he dunked all over LeBron James in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in his rookie season. Boston lost that game, but the dunk has endured and it made a statement of Tatum’s confidence, talent and potential.
He has now added more consistency to his game and averaged career-highs in points, rebounds and assists in the regular season. As Boston’s best player, he is a threat to drop 30-plus points every night. He managed that 29 times in the regular season and five times so far in the playoffs.
Curry has the edge in terms of experience and the fact he has been over this road many times before. He has never earned Finals MVP, despite being voted league MVP twice and the first unanimous MVP in history, so a chance exists for the legendary star to cement one of the missing elements of his legacy.
In his 23 games NBA Finals games, Curry has averaged 26.5 points per game, 5.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists on 42 per cent shooting. He’s also ice-cold in clutch moments. Per NBA History, Since 1971, the only three players to average 10-or-more points in the fourth quarter in multiple Finals series are Michael Jordan (1993, 1997, 1998), Shaquille O’Neal (1995, 2000) and Stephen Curry (2015, 2018). Esteemed company and he knows this stage.
Jayson Tatum’s incredible buzzer-beater helps Boston Celtic beat Brooklyn Nets in an epic finish in Game 1 of their playoff series
Tatum, though, has had himself a postseason to remember. He announced his arrival in the playoffs this year with a dramatic buzzer-beating game-winner against the Brooklyn Nets before that series ended in a sweep and also dropped a playoff career-high 46 points in a Game 6 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semi-finals to keep the Celtics alive.
His improved playmaking has been on display, with a couple of lapses admittedly, and that is vital in terms of how all of the rest of the pieces around him work. Curry is also an elite playmaker as well as his ridiculous shooting.
Scoring-wise, if either of these men get going, then their teams can ride the wave. Curry also sets the tempo though for the Warriors and if he can establish their rhythm, they will be hard to stop. Tatum’s confidence is as high as it has ever been though, and both men are capable of single-handedly firing their teams over the top.
Thompson and Brown: The partners in crime
Next to each of them, Curry and Tatum have a partner playing in the shooting guard position whose games they know intrinsically and with whom they are inextricably linked.
Klay Thompson is Curry’s fellow Splash Brother, while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum make up ‘The Jays’ who are potentially about to power Boston to their first title since 2008.
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The Splash Bros are so-named for their historically good three-point shooting, both in terms of volume and accuracy. Both players rank in the top 20 ever in terms of their percentage accuracy-wise, on much-higher volume that most.
Thompson and Curry also share the top two positions for three-pointers made in a game, showcasing said volume. Thompson made 14 threes in a game against the Chicago Bulls in October 2018 and did so in just 27 minutes, after getting subbed out early due to the lop-sided nature of the scoreline. His long-time team-mate and friend was the person he took the record from and Curry himself dropped 16 in this year’s NBA All-Star game.
Stephen Curry demolished the record for the most three-pointers in the NBA All-Star game with 16 made as he took over the game, dropping 50 points
Tatum and Brown on the other hand have been vital cogs in Boston’s run of Eastern Conference Finals runs over the past five years. Brown was drafted a year before Tatum and has been a source of dynamism ever since he entered the league. He hit a new playoff career-high 40 points against the Miami Heat and dropped 26 points in a 22-point rout of the Warriors in March. He brings drive and energy on both ends, is an excellent defender and the second man the Celtics will look to create offense on his own.
Jaylen Brown put on a shooting masterclass dropping 30 points and lifting the Boston Celtics over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semi-finals
Thompson on the other hand is more of a catch-and-shoot threes man, although he is also an excellent defender. A more perfect exponent of the ‘Three-and-D’ archetype you could not find. He will also be motivated after returning to court earlier this year for the first time since the Warriors’ defeat in the 2019 NBA Finals. Two-and-half years away from the game means he is a more philosophical individual these days, but he still has the killer instinct, as he showed with the 32 points which put away the Dallas Mavericks and sealed the Warriors’ finals berth. He did that on 8-for-14 shooting from deep.
Whichever of these guys can most consistently and ably assist their team’s main man, their team will more than likely win the series.
Looney and Williams: The paint battle
This one is a very interesting battle.
Kevon Looney has become one of the NBA’s best rebounders and seems to be finally getting credit for his efficaciousness on the floor for the Warriors. Scoring has never been his strength but he passed the 20-point mark for the first time in his NBA career with 21 points in a 126-117 comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
Kevon Looney scores a career-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds as the Golden State Warriors beat the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2
It’s the rebounding though which makes Looney stand out. Basketball Reference, via The Athletic, has Looney taking 21.62 per cent of available rebounds when he’s on the floor in these playoffs. That is a higher rate than the best postseasons of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (21.59 per cent in 1977) and Tim Duncan (21.38 in 2008).
Robert Williams III on the other hand is also a good rebounder and uses those abilities very well around the offensive glass where he gets plenty of put-backs and tip-ins. He also provides a very important lob threat for the Celtics and is an imperious rim protector to boot.
Boston’s outstanding defense cranks up an additional notch when he’s on the floor and that’s due to his outstanding footwork which allows him to stay in front of smaller players and an ability to defend without fouling very attuned to the modern NBA. Prior to picking up an injury in March, and he has been plagued with issues throughout the NBA Playoffs too, Williams was No 1 among 169 players in the league who have defended 500-plus shots as the closest defender, per Second Spectrum tracking, holding opponents under 40 per cent shooting. For a man who defends the paint primarily, that’s quite incredible.
Boston Celtics’ Robert Williams III shows great agility to adjust to the driving Caleb Martin and get the defensive stop against the Miami Heat
Williams probably has the more expansive skillset of the two but Looney does exactly what the Warriors need him to, without overcomplicating things or trying to do too much.
Sometimes knowing your role can be vital to victory. But for the Celtics, having Williams on the floor will massively increase their chances of success and his outstanding individual defense could be a potential hinge point if they are going to upset the bookies’ odds and win this series.
Wiggins and Smart: Lockdown defenders
When Andrew Wiggins was first drafted, nobody thought of him as becoming an excellent defender who would play third fiddle on offense. For the Warriors though, he has turned into that as he has found a perfect home for himself following a stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves which had many labelling him a ‘bust’ despite winning Rookie of the Year initially after being taken with the first pick in the 2014 draft.
Marcus Smart, on the other hand, has long been the player the Celtics have hung their hat on defensively. Regularly described as “the heart of the franchise”, he won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award this season. His hustle and determination sets the tone for the rest of the Celtics team. Smart has improved as a scorer, shooter and playmaker over the years and once the Celtics handed him the keys to the offense as point guard and lead decision-maker, that is when their season started trending in the right direction after going 20-21 across the first half of the season.
NBA Gametime pundit Greg Anthony picks Marcus Smart and Andrew Wiggins as two players he believes could make a difference in the NBA Finals
Different personalities and positions for these two but there’s a reason Warriors head coach Steve Kerr ensured he subbed Wiggins off when Luka Doncic left the floor in the Western Conference Finals and subbed him back in when the Slovenian did likewise.
Overall, the Warriors have been plus-111 while Wiggins was on the court through 16 games of these NBA Playoffs. He also bagged a first All-Star appearance this season and appears to have found the perfect role on the perfect team. His rebounding has also been important for the Warriors in ensuring they get extra possessions and second-chance points.
Wiggins is a complementary piece who can play an absolutely pivotal role in the greater mechanism of the Warriors team on both ends. Smart needs to play as the absolute defensive dog that he is and also showcase the improved playmaking and scoring skills he’s developed. In direct match-ups at the point guard position, how well he can shut down Curry could have a huge say in how it all turns out. Wiggins will likely be tasked with assignment on Tatum and same rules apply.
Green and Horford: The versatile vets
Draymond Green is arguably just as important if not more so than Wiggins on defense. Like Smart for the Celtics, he is the tone setter, the guy that gees up the rest of the team with his energy and hustle. Green, who is appearing in a sixth finals with long-time team-mates Curry and Thompson, is one of the charismatic characters in the NBA and is set for a brilliant career as a pundit once he finishes playing. His on-court personality can drive the Warriors and unsettle opponents and he is not shy from telling refs and opponents exactly what he thinks of them.
Al Horford, on the other hand, is a calmer character, for the most part, but he has been absolutely brilliant with his selfless play for the Boston Celtics in this playoff run. In his 15th year, he’s finally through to his first NBA Finals and is the veteran leader of this young Boston team. His voice may not be as loud, nor his personality as gregarious as Green’s, but make no mistake it carries just as much weight as his opposite number’s.
Boston Celtics’ Al Horford effortlessly lobs it up to Robert Williams for the alley-oop against the Miami Heat
The two players share the trait of doing the unglamorous stuff to let the rest of their team-mates flourish. Horford is a better shooter, Green the better passer, but where they really stand out is with their defense.
Both men are great at reading the game on both ends and defensively are very comfortable switching. Green has recorded 15 steals and 18 blocks in the playoffs so far, while Horford has managed to be an extremely effective rim protector in the playoffs so far, recording 15 steals and 27 blocks. His rim protection, alongside Williams’, will make it very difficult for the Warriors to score inside.
Green and Horford just care about making winning plays and that is what makes them special. Green knows what is required to win on this stage but Horford has been waiting for this opportunity for his whole career. Plenty at stake and plenty of motivation for both to show exactly what they can do.
Key bench contributors for both teams
At the start of the playoffs, Jordan Poole was a potential starter if the Warriors chose to go small, moving Green to center. That may still happen in some lineups and Poole is probably the best shot creator either side can call on from the bench. The playoff rookie dropped 30 points on his first outing in the postseason against Denver and has not looked back.
Grant Williams has emerged as a vital player for the Celtics in the postseason and set career highs for points and three-pointers made with his 27-point performance which eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7. In that game, he shot the ball poorly to start with, but kept shooting when the openings came to him and was greatly rewarded.
Derrick White former part of the Boston Celtics’ biggest move at the trade deadline and it has proved to be a shrewd one as he provides vital ball-carrying and playmaking off the bench. When other ball-hungry stars sit, he provides a vital valve for Boston’s offense to lean on.
Gary Payton slams home as Golden State took the lead over Memphis in Game 1!
The Warriors are waiting on 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, experienced forward Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II to return from injury during the NBA Finals. Payton II is a game-time decision for Thursday night’s game after fracturing his elbow earlier in the postseason with a hugely controversial fall after he was hit by Dillon Brooks in the series with the Memphis Grizzlies. His defensive tenacity and ability to attack the basket could prove important for the Warriors from the bench. He has had a breakthrough season and it’s good to see him back.
Shooter Payton Pritchard is growing in confidence all the time for the Boston Celtics and could see time on the floor if they need some points or some extra shooting. He is the weakest defender of Boston’s quorum but plays fairly tenaciously on the glass and looks to have potential in a few areas.
Talented youngsters Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga have both seen some game time for the Warriors too during this postseason and they can also turn to Nemanja Bjelica if needed, but rotations will shrink during the NBA Finals
It’s going to be more up to the main players, to get it done. Whichever group does so will earn the right to hoist aloft the Larry O’Brien trophy in a few weeks’ time. Strap in, and enjoy the ride.
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