The NBA Finals has finally arrived, the match up has been set.
The Boston Celtics are going for their 18th title in franchise history. They battled a lot of past foes to get here: The Brooklyn Nets, who knocked them out last season; the Milwaukee Bucks who beat them in the 2019 playoffs; and the Miami Heat, who sent them home in the 2020 bubble Eastern Conference Finals. Boston has finally gotten over the hump and are in the Finals.
The past two seasons were rough on the Golden State Warriors. Many closed the door on their return after the Kevin Durant departure and the Klay Thompson injuries. But this year, the Warriors broke that proverbial door down. They did it with a slightly altered cast including Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins to go with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson.
Now it is time to turn our attention to who will hold the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of season.
Celtics Defense vs Warriors Offense
The first thing to watch is the battle on the Warriors’ offensive side of the court. The Celtics have the best half-court defense in the playoffs according to Synergy Sports Technology. They allowed just 0.877 points per possession; the next closest team is 0.92.
Boston’s defense has been suffocating. They do a good job of covering for each other when needed but it is not always needed. After working through a few screens, Jayson Tatum stays with Kyle Lowry on the drive, then rotates out to the corner to run Victor Oladipo off the three-point line. He receives help from Al Horford who meets and blocks Oladipo’s layup.
But the Warriors present a different challenge than any team the Celtics have faced in the playoffs. Golden State has a PPP of 1.027 in the half-court. The best half court offense the Celtics faced was the Nets at 0.992 PPP in their first round.
Golden State’s offense is difficult to defend because it is predicated on constant movement. Taking one option away just opens up another for Golden State. Just look at this possession against the Dallas Mavericks.
Poole comes off a ball screen, Jalen Brunson leaves Green to show help, Poole hits Green who goes right to a hand-off with Thompson. While that is happening, Poole comes off a pin down and gets a wide open three. Dinwiddie lets up after Poole passes and is calling for a switch that never happens.
Defending the Warriors is never easy. Here’s a great example from the last Celtics-Warriors game. The Celtics do a great job defending it.
Marcus Smart stays attached to Curry after he gives up the ball, then switches with Tatum during an off-ball screen along the baseline. Jaylen Brown takes away the hand-off opportunity to Otto Porter Jr. and then Horford switches onto Poole. Horford handles it well, and goes back to Kevon Looney, then the Celtics have to defend a hand-off with a Curry-Thompson screen mixed in. Brown and Tatum switch but Tatum trips and Thompson cashes in a three.
The Celtics defended the play perfectly but a simple stumble leads to three points. A fall, a hesitation on a switch or a miscommunication and the Warriors make defenses pay.
On the flip side Boston has the toughest defense the Warriors will face all playoffs. Boston is a disciplined defensive team. They have size on the wing with Tatum and Brown. Smart is the Defensive Player of the Year. Horford and Robert Williams (presuming he’s healthy) patrol the paint. The Celtics do a great job of switching and even switching out of bad matchups repeatedly.
This will be a collision of a great offense versus a great defense.
Warriors Defense vs Celtics Offense
Let’s flip the court now.
The Celtics have two offenses, one that becomes one-on-one focused and another that is ball movement oriented. Playing one-on-one will play right into the Warriors hands, but the ball movement offense will create some challenges for Golden State.
Good things happen for Boston on offense when they run multiple actions. Grant Williams slips a screen at the top of the possession, the ball gets kicked to the other side, triggering a pick-and-roll. The Heat switch , Horford gets the ball in the post against a wing player, and Tatum makes a great cut from the slot for the layup.
Look also for the Celtics to attack Curry and Poole,especially when they are switched onto Tatum or Brown. Brown gets Curry matched up on him in early offense, and Green hangs around so the Celtics swing the ball over, pulling Green away before going back to that match up. With Brown beginning to back down Curry, Thompson shows help at the elbow and Smart drifts away. Brown makes the correct read and hits Smart, who knocks down a three against a late contest.
Last thing to keep an eye on is just how the Warriors defend the pick-and-roll against the Celtics. Against Tatum, they are likely to show hard and to avoid switching. That is what they did early in their previous match up. That will open up opportunities for Boston to slip the screen and attack in the short roll, like the play below to Williams.
The Warriors defense is not to be considered weak by any measure. They have given up a PPP of 0.984 in the playoffs. Green is a great quarterback of defense. Wiggins stepped up defensively against Luka Doncic. Porter is an important piece when healthy, and it appears defensive specialist Gary Payton II is on track to return during the Finals. Thompson is not the defender he used to be but that just means he has gone from elite lockdown to just good.
Even the perceived weak spots in Curry and Poole compete hard defensively. Curry in particular has improved defensively over the years and was never as bad as most thought.
The Celtics will need to stay out of playing one-on-one basketball and the Warriors will need to stay out of switching into difficult match ups.
The battle for how this series is played will be critical. Both teams are good in the half-court but their styles of play are drastically different. The Warriors want to play faster. They lead the NBA playoffs in scoring at 114.5 while the Celtics are eighth at 107.1. The Warriors have been playing at 98.4 pace (possessions per game) and the Celtics at 95.0 pace these playoffs.
The Warriors want this to be a track meet, with the ball flying up and down the court. The faster they play the fewer possessions they will have to go up against Boston’s set defense.
Conversely, the Celtics want this to be a half court game. They went seven games against the Milwaukee Bucks; what hurt the Celtics most in that series was the transition game. In their three losses, they gave up an average of 18.7 points in transition versus 12.8 in their wins.
Over the last 18 games, the Celtics broke 110 points 5 times, once in the previous series. The Warriors did it 10 times in their 16 playoff games. If this game is played in the low 100s that bodes well for Boston. If it is in the 110s or higher that favors Golden State.
This has the making of a fantastic series, with heavyweights on both sides and two very good coaches. There is going to be a lot of high level chess being played in each game. Get ready for loads of adjustment game to game, to even in-game. Rotations are going to be shifted and shuffled all series long.
The Jump Ball prediction……FUN!
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men’s national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.