On both sides of the court, the NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Celtics will be a chess match. Here’s what you need to know to get ready.
The structural, aesthetic, and narrative distinctions between the Warriors and Celtics are obvious, and they help to frame the story of this year’s NBA Finals. This series pits a young team on the rise that wants to make it big for the first time against a group of older, more experienced players who want to show that they are still the best in the NBA.
In the last eight seasons, Golden State has three titles and five (now six) Finals visits, with 123 games of Finals experience among its key players; Boston hasn’t made it out of the East since 2010, and no player on the current team has ever played in the Finals.
The Warriors employ an unpredictable and decentralized offense centered on an off-ball superstar, whereas the Celtics employ a more traditional multi-pronged assault led by two primary creators.
However, in other ways, these two sides are very similar. Both have done so by assembling well-balanced lineups centered on homegrown talent, demonstrating versatility against a variety of opponents and resiliency in the face of adversity, and relying on the strength of their defenses to get to this stage.
This season, Boston and Golden State rated one and two in defensive efficiency, respectively, and have been two of the league’s most imaginative and adaptable defenses. That, more than anything else, will determine the outcome of this year’s NBA Finals, and both teams will face unique challenges in this series.
In the NBA Finals, how will the Boston Celtics defend against the Golden State Warriors?
The Warriors present a completely different—and more difficult—challenge than the teams the Celtics beat en route to the Finals, as Boston’s multifaceted offense stands in stark contrast to the heliocentric one they faced in the Conference Finals, and the Warriors present a completely different—and more difficult—challenge than the teams the Celtics beat en route to the Finals.
The Warriors have the best playoff offensive rating in the NBA (117.8), and Boston has yet to face a team that can score in as many ways as the Warriors.
Many of the Heat’s read-and-react principles are used by the Warriors, but with more accuracy and decisiveness. They require opponents to cover more ground, make faster decisions, weigh more options, and stay more connected than any other team in the league, and they have the most dangerous offensive weapon in the league right now.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ combination of balanced offense and all-out defensive pressure, which flustered Golden State into their worst series of the postseason, is a model for how to beat the Warriors.
The Celtics have the personnel to replicate that method, but they need to improve their offensive creators and defenders’ versatility and discipline. Boston may be the only team in the NBA that can handle the Warriors’ constant cuts, screens, and passes better than any other team.
That quest begins, as always, with restraining Steph Curry, whose inexorable movement and scheme-bending gravity are too much for any single defender — or even standard coverage — to handle. Curry is a superior offensive creator because of the amount of attention he draws beyond the 3-point line and how he exploits that attention with his off-ball movement.
It may be easier in theory for a team to dry up Curry’s individual production than it is for Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Jimmy Butler’s, but Curry is a superior offensive creator because of the amount of attention he draws beyond the 3-point line and how he exploits that attention with his off-ball moves.
Because of how frequently the Warriors move and screen, the matchups in this series will be fluid, but to the extent that traditional defensive assignments do exist, Marcus Smart appears to be the most logical candidate to guard Curry due to his size and ability to navigate screens on and off the ball.
However, don’t be surprised if Ime Udoka uses Smart on Draymond Green while Jaylen Brown or Derrick White pursues Curry. During the regular season, Boston’s greatest rim protectors, Robert Williams and Al Hoford, were unwilling to switch to Curry, which the Warriors exploited by using their men (typically Green and Kevon Looney) as a screener for Curry:
Using a smaller defender on Green would allow Boston to switch Curry-Green pick-and-rolls more seamlessly, allowing Williams and Horford to make plays in defense.
Most opponents fall into an automatic trap as a result of Green’s two-man game, which allows Green—arguably the best off-the-dribble passing big man ever—to make plays against a weakened defense. If the Celtics switched that motion, it would be easier for them to keep the ball in front of them and avoid costly four-on-three situations.
The same can be said off the field, where Golden State gets much of its offense through impromptu cuts and screens meant to confuse defenders and compel them to make mistakes.
However, if defenses can simply switch off-ball actions with similarly sized defenders, like the Celtics can, it becomes much simpler to close such gaps and force more difficult shots:
Udoka will use a variety of tactics to keep Golden State guessing throughout the series, which is one of the many advantages of coaching a team with Boston’s combination of athleticism, intelligence, and discipline.
Even though the Celtics are almost perfect at switching everything, their guards’ ability to fight over ball screens makes drop coverage possible in lineups with two bigs, and Boston’s ability to move quickly around the court could make it possible for Curry to survive being trapped.
Switching appears to be their best choice right now, if only to limit the Warriors’ ability to create easy looks off of Curry’s gravity. If that’s the case, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins may have a harder time getting shots in this game, so Curry and Jordan Poole must be able to routinely overcome their defenders one-on-one if Golden State is to score frequently.
The Celtics may try to assist Green and Looney in closing down driving and passing lanes if they aren’t switching, but those two are experts at pivoting into handoffs with shooters when opponents ignore them.
How will the Warriors defend the Celtics?
Injuries to Andre Iguodala, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. partially hamper the Warriors’ depth and ball movement, but the greatest consequence of their unavailability would come on defense.
Despite his older age, Iguodala remains a shrewd individual and team defender. Porter is a tenacious rebounder and off-ball defender in small lineups, and Payton is probably the best defensive guard in basketball. As of this writing, none of the three have been ruled in or out for Game 1.
Regardless of Porter, Payton, and Iguodala’s status, Wiggins will almost definitely start the series defending Tatum, with other Warriors also taking turns on him during the series. Tatum’s passing has reached a new level this postseason, and he’ll need to fully unlock that side of his game to defeat a smothering, disciplined defense.
The Warriors won’t swipe at the ball or jump passing lanes as aggressively as the Heat did, but they masterfully reduce the court on their opponents while leaving fewer weak links to attack. They’re the unique squad that can swarm the paint and still recover to shooters and will dare Smart, White, Grant Williams, and even Horford to defeat them from 3.
During the regular season, the Warriors were comfortable switching their guards onto Tatum, and they have plenty of experience hedging and pre-switching against the pick-and-roll to shield smaller guys from superstars. However, the Celtics haven’t been as active in their pursuit of mismatches as some other playoff teams, and it’s not in their best interests for them to do so.
Tatum can make a shot in almost any situation, but in the playoffs he has only 67 points on 80 isolated opportunities, with a high turnover rate and a low free-throw rate. The Celtics’ isolation efficiency ranks in the 40th percentile among playoff teams, and they’re at their best when they move the ball and get into the defense’s face.
When Poole is in the game, they should and will target him, and Brown should be able to select his spots in isolation, but if Boston reverts to playing one-on-one in the halfcourt, this series may be over quickly.
On every trip to the basket, Brown and Tatum will encounter bodies, and they must consistently recognize when to pass in those instances.
The right pass isn’t always the easiest, and those two have improved their ability to get off the ball early against perimeter traps and hedges, allowing Boston to move the ball against a rotating defense. In the playoffs, the Celtics have often used Smart and White as screeners for Tatum.
This forces opponents to put a smaller defender on Tatum or lets Boston’s guards make plays on the roll:
That action also allows Boston to force Curry to work on defense without confining its attack to a one-on-one matchup, and Poole will be a part of it. The Warriors can be vulnerable on the perimeter against ultra-quick ball-handlers, though Boston’s pace off the dribble isn’t particularly high.
Curry and Looney may look to be easy targets, but Curry is a tough, competitive defender, and Looney has developed into one of the NBA’s finest switching big men. (The Celtics should go for Poole or Thompson if they want to attack.)
Expect Boston to execute quick-hitting plays to get Brown attacking downhill, where he may take advantage of his physical advantages to finish at the rim or soar over his defender. Steve Kerr may move Wiggins to Brown and Thompson to Tatum in the future. This way, Thompson can use his size without having to worry about being blown over by Wiggins’ quick first step.
Golden State’s defensive strategy is likely to shift from possession to possession, so the Celtics must be prepared to attack not only varied man-to-man coverages but also numerous versions of zone defense. Then again, Kerr will also have a deeper rotation than Udoka, especially if Golden State is fully healthy and who holds the fort in star-less minutes will be crucial.
In a similar vein, it will be interesting to see how much leeway Kerr gives lineups without Curry or Green; Poole’s emergence and Thompson’s return to form have allowed Golden State to line up more of Steph and Draymond’s minutes in the playoffs, but bench-heavy units have been inconsistent, especially on defense.
What elements will determine the outcome of the NBA Finals?
From game to game, pay attention to when each coach decides to go small. Both teams have exciting small-ball lineups, but the centers in this series have been so good throughout the playoffs that Kerr and Udoka might be able to stay large for a little longer than expected. It will be more about their offense than their defense if Looney or Robert Williams are yanked from the game in the final seconds.
The Celtics need to find bodies when shots are in the air and finish stops with defensive boards. Looney and Wiggins punished the Grizzlies and Mavericks for going small by attacking the offensive glass.
Turnovers and transition defense could determine the outcome of this series. Cleaning up miscues and minimizing the opponent’s possibilities for easy scores will be crucial in a fight between top halfcourt defenses. Golden State and Boston have the seventh and eighth highest turnover rates among playoff teams, respectively, and as a result, their transition defenses have deteriorated.
The Celtics have surrendered the most transition points per 100 possessions of any team that has advanced past the first round, while the Warriors are prone to runouts on the other end of errant passes. Boston can’t afford to linger behind the play and whine to the officials like it did against Miami (Tatum has been a particular culprit here) if it wants to feed Golden State’s fast-paced, 3-point-happy offense.
The Celtics are younger than most NBA Finalists, but their tenacity and resolve have been on display this postseason, with elimination-game victories in Milwaukee and Miami. Meanwhile, Golden State has carved its way through the Western Conference with the grit and confidence of a club that thrives in the playoff crucible.
This series will be distinguished by outstanding defense, favoring the team with the more durable offense. As good as Boston’s defense is, the Warriors may be even better on that end and have more offensive options. That, combined with the Warriors’ superior Finals experience and the fact that they have the greatest player in the series, leads me to predict Golden State in six games, though the series may go any way.
Aside from the obvious satisfaction of winning a championship, the stakes of this series are high — especially for Golden State, which may not have a better chance at a post-Durant championship with this core of players.
A fourth ring would cement Curry’s place as one of the game’s all-time greats, make Green one of the best complementary players, end Thompson’s long road back from injury, and solidify the Warriors as one of the game’s longest-lasting player-coach partnerships.
A triumph for Boston would validate a convoluted and sometimes questioned team-building process centered on Tatum and Brown, reward Horford for a successful basketball career, and provide Tatum with something no other under-25 superstar has: a championship ring. In the following weeks, all of this and more will be decided. It’s fortunate for us that we’ll be able to see it unfold.