Warriors-Celtics NBA Finals preview: Key questions, X-factor, matchups and prediction

Warriors-Celtics NBA Finals preview: Key questions, X-factor, matchups and prediction

The second of two regular-season matchups between the Celtics and Warriors is best remembered for Steph Curry’s second-quarter injury. Marcus Smart went nosediving for a loose ball, rolled up on Curry’s foot, and the resulting sprain threatened to derail the Warriors’ season.

It didn’t. Jordan Poole exploded into another tier during the month Curry missed. Curry’s foot healed in time for the first game of the playoffs. He looked refreshed upon return. The Warriors won enough down the stretch to cling onto a home-court advantage in the playoff series that would end up mattering. That Smart play no longer holds substantial relevance.

So, in a rewatch to prep for the upcoming NBA Finals matchup, the 20 minutes that preceded Curry’s injury generated the more significant data. Curry exited with four minutes left in the second quarter, and the Warriors only had 25 points at the time. They finished with 88, their fourth-lowest scoring night of the season, the least productive chunk of it coming when Curry was still on the floor and Boston kept getting stops.

This series pits the league’s two best regular-season defenses against each other. This will be a challenge for both offenses. But that’s a bit of a simplistic telling. Boston’s defense has been leaps and bounds ahead of any other unit since the calendar flipped to 2022. Its rating in the final four months of the regular season was 105.2, three efficiency points stingier than the next closest. That’s carried into the playoffs. The Celtics have produced a cumulative 105.1 rating during their takedown of the Nets, Bucks and Heat.

The Warriors’ defense faded after Draymond Green’s injury in January. It’s recovered since his return. They’ve mixed schemes and held up well when it’s mattered most the past six weeks, producing a decent but unspectacular 111.0 defensive rating during their 12-4 stomp to the West crown. They aren’t shutting teams down, but they’ve faced excellent offenses and are slowing them enough to race away with wins on the other end.

The Warriors have a league-best 116.1 offensive rating in the playoffs. That’s four efficiency points above their regular-season ranking. Curry is in a groove. Poole has arrived. Klay Thompson always has big nights in his back pocket. Andrew Wiggins has found his role. Green has upped his aggression lately. Looney is gobbling up offensive rebounds. Most everything has clicked on that end.

So that’s where the chess match in this series begins: the Warriors’ offense against Boston’s defense. Neither has faced near the challenge in these playoffs that the opposing unit presents. Which one of them can sustain success despite a three-level jump?

Biggest Warriors question: How do they score enough?

The Warriors felt such freedom against the Mavericks because of their lack of rim protection. Maxi Kleber blocked six shots in five games, but nobody feared Kleber when they entered the lane. He wasn’t a deterrent.

Memphis’ defense gave the Warriors the most trouble in these playoffs, and that’s partially because Jaren Jackson Jr. swatted away 15 shots in six games and altered countless more. Poole had trouble getting to the rim against the Grizzlies, especially once Steven Adams entered the picture next to Jackson. Green scored five or fewer points in the first five games of the series.

That’s what makes Robert Williams (and the health of his knee) such a massive factor in this series. Jackson was second in the league in blocks this season. Williams was fourth. Boston’s season ignited when they switched up their defensive scheme and had Williams guard non-shooters and roam around hunting shots.

In that domination of the Warriors in March, Williams had four blocks in 23 minutes. Two of them came on Poole, whose sneaky and creative finishing at the rim has become such a vital part of the Warriors’ attack. Just envision these next two plays against the Mavericks. They’d probably have culminated in a pair of Poole layups. But against Williams, they’re two of the more impressive weakside blocks you’ll see.

That was before Williams tore the meniscus in his left knee in late March. He missed the end of the regular season and rushed back in the playoffs. Williams is still clearly hobbled. He’s missed a few games and seems to be questionable leading up to tipoff just about every night. He left early in Game 6 of the Miami series and was limping in Game 7, able only to play 15 minutes.

Al Horford has put together a sensational six weeks. He had 14 rebounds and a pair of blocks in 44 give-everything minutes to close out Miami. His size and defensive brain give Boston a second big who can bother the Warriors better than anybody Dallas employs. But Williams, when healthy and bouncy, is the disruptive force who could really impact the Warriors’ gameplan on the back end.

That’s where the spread-out nature of the finals could aid the Celtics. The series doesn’t begin until Thursday, and there are two off days between every game except for games 3 and 4. Normally, that type of extra rest would be beneficial to the veteran team — and it no doubt will help the Warriors’ older bodies. But it’s the Celtics who may find those bigger breaks more important because of the maintenance needed for Williams and Smart.

Smart missed the first game of the Miami series because of a sprained right foot and then badly sprained his right ankle in Game 3. He returned and powered through it to end the series. He estimated he was at “65 to 70 percent,” and his “whole right side” is banged up.

You know he will do anything to get on the floor for the finals. Expect him out there in the opener, shouldering the largest share of the assignment against Curry. Smart darts around screens, reads off-ball movement adeptly and stays glued to Curry better than just about any modern defender. He’s a better version of Dillon Brooks. But how impacted is his mobility? Is he physically capable of chasing Curry around relentlessly the next two weeks?

The Celtics can switch up schemes against the Warriors because of their versatility. Horford likes to sit in drop coverage, and that had plenty of success against Miami’s slumping shooters. But that’s typically a death sentence against Curry, Thompson and Poole. Horford and even Williams, if he’s involved in the screen action, will either have to hedge out harder and recover or switch.

Grant Williams could get some run as a small-ball center. Boston’s best switch-everything lineup against the Warriors is probably Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Derrick White and Grant Williams. Tatum and Brown are equipped to guard just about anyone. If Horford is having trouble in space and Robert Williams is hobbled, that unit could get an early-series test drive.

But the Warriors must first force those difficult decisions for Ime Udoka by creating cracks in Boston’s half-court wall. It’ll help if they turn them over and rev up in transition as much as possible, but they also must find a way to score in the halfcourt setting far better than the Heat could.

Kyle Lowry couldn’t get past anybody. Tyler Herro was injured. Bam Adebayo wasn’t very aggressive. Most Miami possessions just devolved into Jimmy Butler trying to muscle his way into a difficult two-pointer.

The Warriors will stretch the Celtics out to a far greater degree and attack from various angles, especially when Curry, Thompson and Poole share the court together. Wiggins is also a key. When the Warriors beat the Celtics in Boston back in November, Wiggins had 27 points. He hit five 3s. Wiggins was great against the Mavericks in nearly every way, but he only made 30 percent of his 3s, including an 0-for-7 night in Game 5.

The early portion of the series will test Boston’s ability to quickly game plan and familiarize itself with the Warriors’ unique movement attack. The Nuggets, Grizzlies and Mavericks read the pattern and actions better the deeper the series went, but all those early-series defensive breakdowns doomed them.

Even in that March win, the Celtics weren’t perfect against the Warriors. They had a handful of first-half breakdowns that led to open 3s. The Warriors just kept bricking.

Back in December, it was worse. Take a look at this late fourth-quarter possession. Curry misses the 3, but it’s the mix-up that matters. Smart and Josh Richardson (no longer on the team) don’t communicate on the switch. Robert Williams doesn’t react in time. Curry jogs his way into a wide-open 3 at the top of the key during a moment of the game when Boston absolutely can’t allow this type of look.

Take a look at the slow-motion. It’s such a big breakdown that Green is searching for somebody to screen and can’t even find a player getting out on Curry.

Biggest Celtics question: Can they limit the turnovers?

Tatum has committed 77 turnovers in 18 playoff games. That’s 18 more than the next closest player and, on a per-game basis, is an average of 4.3. Brown is fumbling away three turnovers per game. These wings are very talented, but mistake-prone.

Look at the playoff splits. In their 12 wins, the Celtics turned the ball over 12.8 times per game. In their six losses, it jumps up to 16.3 per game. They are more beatable when you don’t have to constantly work against their half-court defense.

But that first requires opponents jarring the ball loose to get out in transition. The Warriors just played a Dallas team that protects the ball better than just about anybody, operating in a slow-pace, risk-averse Luka Dončić environment. Boston’s wings are riskier and looser with the basketball.

Gary Payton II’s likely return early in the series could prove massive. He should be able to toggle between Tatum and Brown and give Wiggins — the expected Tatum defender — a break, when necessary. He’s also one of the best ballhawks in the league. Payton averaged an NBA-high 2.8 steals per 36 minutes this season.

Andre Iguodala, like Payton and Otto Porter Jr., will be reintegrated into practice this week. Of the three, Iguodala’s status for the finals feels the murkiest. But if he is able to give them something, the Warriors can suddenly throw out various lineup combinations that should be able to give Boston’s offense — putting up a pedestrian 111.8 offensive rating in these playoffs — plenty of trouble.

Thompson, who will probably start on Brown, missed the December road win in Boston. So did Poole, who tested positive for COVID and was stuck in a Boston hotel room for 10 days. In their absence, Iguodala had one of his better games of the season, piling up two blocks and two steals along with his 12 points.

With the night in need of a win-sealing defensive stop, Kerr had Payton, Iguodala, Wiggins, Green and Kevon Looney on the floor. Let’s pick up the possession with Brown in the post, stonewalled by Green and searching for a passing outlet.

Payton is on Tatum. He makes the pass out difficult and then guides Tatum into a baseline double team. Green forces a Tatum pass out back to Brown, who has Iguodala on him. He circles into the lane, tries to Eurostep past Payton and leaves the ball exposed. Iguodala slaps down and strips it off Brown’s knee out of bounds. Ballgame.

If any combination of Payton, Iguodala and Porter enter the mix, Kerr will have some difficult lineup decisions to make. Considering Looney’s recent surge, he is expected to start and be a bigger part of the rotation picture than anyone initially envisioned. Poole must get his minutes to jolt the offense. But Kerr tends to lean defense when the situation gets tense, and he should have a fuller arsenal with which to game plan against Boston.

X-factor: Does Derrick White hit open 3s?

The Celtics flipped Richardson for White at the deadline. It’s been an essential move for a Boston bench that needed one more useful body. White can defend, moves the ball and can have an occasionally loud night as a scorer.

But the tape of that March game between the two tells you plenty about the way the Warriors view White within this Boston scheme. He is the player they willingly ignore and will dare to beat them.

This sequence comes late in the first quarter. It’s literally the first possession White is on the floor. Poole is on Tatum 28 feet from the hoop on the left wing. That’s obviously not a matchup the Warriors would feel comfortable with.

So take a look at Mike Brown, their defensive coordinator, at the top of the screen. The beginning of the clip is in slow motion. Brown is yelling at Jonathan Kuminga, who is near White on the right wing, to sprint over and double Tatum, leaving White alone. Kuminga rotates over, Damion Lee sticks closer to Grant Williams in the corner, and the Warriors let White shoot a wide-open 3. He misses.

That was a hint at the gameplan to come. The Warriors shamelessly sagged off White for the entirety of his 22 minutes. He missed all eight of his shots and all five of his 3s. The funneling worked.

White, for his career, is a 34 percent 3-point shooter. But he dipped below 31 percent this season and has been a worse (and more hesitant) 25 percent shooter in these playoffs. White did make six of his 10 3s in the final two games of the Miami series, so maybe a continued hot streak to open this series will bite the Warriors and force them to stick closer.

But the Warriors’ tendency has been to trust the percentages and dare non-shooters to keep hitting their looks. They let Ja Morant, Kyle Anderson and Brooks have all the 3s they wanted in the Memphis series and begged Frank Ntilikina and Josh Green to shoot every time Dallas put them on the floor.

I’d expect the same treatment for White and, to a lesser degree, Smart, who can have big nights but can also shoot the Celtics out of games when he’s overly aggressive compared to Tatum and Brown.

Stat of consequence

Two players are tied for the most offensive rebounds in the playoffs: Wiggins and Looney. Both have 42 in 16 games. That combo has the Warriors averaging 14.5 second-chance points per game, an underrated force in what’s been a strong offensive month.

The Celtics are long and active defensively, but they’re an average rebounding team. Their defensive rebounding rate (grabbing 72.5 percent of opponent misses) ranked 16th in the regular season. It’s been slightly worse — 71.2 percent — in the playoffs.

Again, the Warriors can’t rely on generating great looks consistently against Boston in the half court, so they must find various ways to pile up points. That means Looney and Wiggins must hit the glass as aggressively as they have been. In the road win in Boston, Looney had five offensive rebounds, and Wiggins had three.

Here is the tail end of the first possession of the season between the Celtics and Warriors. Moses Moody, starting for the quarantined Poole, misses a 3 from the right wing, but Smart fails to box out Wiggins.

Because Wiggins often gets a defender who is told to worry more about the other threats on the court, he has found success sneaking past them when they neglect him as a threat. Here he is scooting past Smart and tipping a couple offensive rebounds to himself before finally scoring.

Prediction

The Warriors enter with a rest advantage for the third straight series. They had two more days of relaxation and preparation before the Memphis and Dallas series and then went out and won each Game 1. They have three more days of rest than the Celtics and will spend Monday practicing while Boston is flying cross country. That matters. Game 1 matters. Home court matters, especially in a matchup that profiles as competitive as this one.

Warriors in 7.

(Photo of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Jayson Tatum: Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)


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