Preview: When the top two defenses clash, be prepared for sparks
Warriors return to the Finals!
As a kid, some of my fondest memories are waking up and watching Saturday morning cartoons. But more specifically, phase two, where my shows came on. It was a little later, and you’d get the second generation cereal (Apple Jacks, preferably) refill in the leftover milk from your first bowl. It was like a second level of settling in, tucking deeper into the moment. Scratching that “I wanted more of that" itch.
In a similar way, this Golden State Warriors championship reload tastes a little extra delicious. The anticipation of watching this chapter unfold is palpable enough that it’s already stressing me out before the games have begun.
The veterans that broke the dam with that first championship, and then formed a dynasty off what will surely be the most talented team I’ll see in my lifetime are back. Stripped down to the core that has gotten it done all the way through and paired with some newcomers that fill in all the gaps, the Warriors are four wins away from another ring. Another chapter in what has already been a historic run.
But first, they have to get past a very tough Boston Celtics team.
On the injury front, things are looking downright sunny for Golden State. Aside from shelved big man, James Wiseman, it looks like the rest of the banged up Warriors are poised to make a return in these Finals. Formally listed as “questionable” ahead of today’s game, we are likely to get a better indication this afternoon as to whether or not everyone will be available.
WHO: Golden State Warriors vs. Boston Celtics
WHEN: Thursday, June 2nd, 2022 // 6pm PDT
Stopping Curry: Can Celtic’s defense bend without breaking?
That teams will focus their entire defense on stopping Stephen Curry is a given. He’s earned every inch of his long list of accolades, and when the games start to matter more you can rest assured that slowing Curry down is at the top of their opponents list of defensive priorities. There’s two elements to this: how hard can you make Curry’s shots; and secondly, how well can your defense bend under the pressure it will have to operate under?
Curry is averaging 25.9 points, along with 4.9 rebounds, and 6,2 assists per game while shooting 44,9% from the field and 38% from deep (where he leads the post season with 60 makes this postseason). But this section of the preview isn’t necessarily about Curry, it’s about what defending Curry does to a defense.
This game will be the first time that the NBA’s #1 and #2 ranked defenses will face off in the Finals since Michael Jordan’s Bulls took on the Seattle Sonics (are they Super Sonics, or was that just a
Salt n Pepa JJ Fad song?). Anyways, rest assured that this is going to be one of the toughest defenses that Golden State has faced in the playoffs. That said, the Celtics had a lot of trouble containing Jimmy Butler, and their switch-heavy approach leaves them vulnerable to mismatch hunting — something that Andrew Wiggins is more than happy to do if called on.
Boston’s stout defense makes regular appearances in prognostications about who will win this series with good reason. They’ve got the size, and more importantly the skill, to run the coveted “switch everything” defense that has become all the rage — and is certainly the leading theory on how best to slow down coach Steve Kerr’s frenetic offense.
For a breakdown of the specific matchups, rotations, and advantages/disadvantages of this matchup, I strongly recommend you go read Joe Viray’s excellent preview. The truth is that with teams as closely matched as these two, no one can predict what will happen when they slam together.
On paper, the Celtics are as well suited to covering the Warriors as any team they’ve faced in the playoffs. With strong point of attack defenders in Smart and Brown, and smart, switchable defenders operating in a well coached system on the wings and down low. But the reality is a much harsher equation when it comes to Golden State’s relentless marathon run.
“We always said that Steph is extremely dangerous once he gives up the ball,” says Bzdelik, the Rockets’ former defensive coordinator, now happily retired. “He might even be more dangerous after he gives up the ball.”
This is going to be a colossal matchup.
We’ve seen the book written on the Warriors, and then read back to them over their next five trips through the playoffs: stop Steph. But Curry always finds a way to sneak around that back screen…
I’d also argue that this version of the Warriors are as good as any that they’ve had at exploiting the gaps created by Curry. Klay Thompson is rounding into shape, and the threat of him going supernova at any point is a constant looming threat. But there’s a couple of key new twists to the supporting cast that deserve special mention.
New wrinkles: Wiggins, Looney rebounding; Poole scoring
That the Warriors have turned their fortunes around so quickly is certainly mostly due to the return of a healthy core, but the performances of Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney have been huge. Both players have performed beyond expectations. Wiggins with his patented two way play, has proven to be an especially reliable and shockingly powerful force in these playoffs. “That dunk over Luka” is going down in Dub Nation lore, but he’s also had huge three-pointers, big rebounding and defensive plays. Against the Celtics, he’s going to be called on to defend Tatum, and part of that assignment will be forcing him to play both ends of the court, just as hard as Wiggins does. Wiggins is also going to be one of the most forceful relief valves, should the Celtics find themselves a little too attentive towards Curry.
Kevon Looney has emerged at the height of his power just at the right time for the Warriors. After battling injuries for most of his career, Looney is finally healthy and has just flat out gotten a lot better. In this excellent article by Marcus Thompson for The Athletic, much of this is attributed to Looney’s study of the art of the board under new coach
Basketball-Reference has Looney grabbing 21.62 percent of the available rebounds when he’s on the floor in these playoffs. That ranks No. 44 all-time for the best rebound rate in a single postseason. Higher than the best postseasons of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (21.59 percent in 1977) and Tim Duncan (21.38 in 2008). Wilt Chamberlain’s best postseason (21.74 in 1973) is six spots ahead of the Warriors’ starting center.
The final new factor is Jordan Poole. He’s shown up in a big way in these playoffs, with an ability to score that has been lacking since the departure of Leandro “We gonna be championship” Barbosa. Poole was big in one of the regular season matchup between these teams, including exploding for 19 points in a single quarter. Box+1 isn’t an option when Poole is on the court alongside Curry.
How are the Celtics holding up?
Like “just hitting their shots” team health is a significant factor that isn’t discussed enough — probably because it’s a little boring. Of course, Warriors’ fans know all too well about the hypotheticals that can come in to place an asterisk or two next to any title run, but as so much coverage has hinged around the vaunted Celtics defense, I can’t help but notice how tightly correlated this all is with health. After all, comparing the two teams defensive numbers side-by-side, bolsters the Golden State advantage.
At full health, the Warriors have managed a tighter defense this season:
In the NBA Finals, if you can play, you do. And with both players participating in their critical game 7 win over the Miami Heat, I think it’s safe to assume that everyone suits up for Boston.
However, you can’t advance this deep into the playoffs without accumulating some bumps and bruises. Smart and center Robert Williams both missed games in the last round against the Miami Heat. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like either player is going to be at a significant disadvantage, but in a game that can come down to inches, being a half step slow can mean the difference between winning and losing.
With all the coverage above about what the Warriors are going to do, I think it’s fair to point out that the Celtics path was far from smooth, and their chances of beating this team now are different than if it were the regular season. The Celtics have played more games, had less time off, and are coming in a little banged up. More importantly than all of that, they are embarking on a journey against the most battle-tested group of Warriors that has ever existed. Hungry for another shot, knowing full well what this climb could mean should they fall short of their ultimate goal after winning 73 games.
Rarely do you get a chance to come back like this, and Golden State knows it.
My entire being is consumed with excitement right now. Like a little kid giving overly exuberant low fives. We’ve got 12 hours between the time this article goes live and the first game of the NBA Finals. Predicted by the visionary few, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a little surprised to find Golden State here again. It feels surreal.
Three seasons ago, the Warriors lost Kevin Durant and watched Klay Thompson go down with the first of two significant injuries.
Two seasons ago, they finished with the absolute worst record in the league.
Last year, a slightly healthier version made it to the play-in tournament before getting bumped.
But this year is different. The Warriors are back.
Dubs in six.