The 2022 NBA Finals are here. The Golden State Warriors cruised to their sixth NBA Finals in the last eight seasons with a gentleman's sweep of the Dallas Mavericks and Luka Doncic.
The Boston Celtics fought through two consecutive Game 7 series ousting the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and the 2020 Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat for their first Finals appearance since 2010.
Here is what to expect.
A DEFENSIVE CLASH NOT SEEN IN NEARLY 3 DECADES
For the first time since 1996, the NBA Finals will feature the top two defensive teams in the league. Boston has the best defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in the regular season at 106.2. Golden State is second at 106.6. The 1996 NBA Finals featured the top defenses in the league at the time, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls and Gary Payton's Seattle SuperSonics.
Boston features the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, who is also the first guard to win the DPOY since Payton did in 1996. He will be helped by Boston's two-way star duo of Jayson Tatum, winner of the first ever Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP, and Jaylen Brown.
Shoring up Boston's defense will be Robert Williams III and 15-year veteran Al Horford. Off the bench, Boston will look to the defensive minded Derrick White and Grant Williams for back up.
Boston employs a switching defensive scheme which stifles offenses that rely on pick and rolls. It should also come in handy against Golden State's heavy ball and player movement offense led by Stephen Curry, which is geared toward exploiting mismatches on the perimeter and inside the paint.
How Golden State plans to attack Boston's switch-heavy scheme, with cuts and slipped screens as possible counters, is one of the things that could dictate this series. The Warriors currently lead all teams this postseason in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions), points per game, assist percentage and assist ratio.
Golden State features former Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green. It also features an elite defensive guard off the bench, Gary Payton II, the son of the Glove, Gary Payton. GP2, however, is coming off an injury suffered in the second round, and will reportedly be a game time decision for Game 1 of the Finals.
The Warriors do have a lot of defensive strength beyond GP2 and Green. First-time All-Star Andrew Wiggins was a defensive powerhouse in the conference finals helping the Warriors slow down All-NBA guard Luka Doncic. Klay Thompson has also been strong defensively, and starting center Kevon Looney is a monster on the boards with the patience to be effective anywhere on the floor.
Steve Kerr may also have the option of deploying 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, if he recovers from his own health problems in time for the Finals. The Warriors can put the clamps on, and that may be a problem for Boston, which suffered stretches of offensive droughts in its series against Milwaukee and Miami.
Golden State has a 5-2 record in games decided in the clutch (defined as less than five minutes or overtime with neither team ahead by more than five points). The Warriors also have a league-leading +25.4 net rating in the fourth quarter of this year's playoffs.
This means that they have outscored their opponents by 25.4 points per 100 possessions in the last 12 minutes of the game. The Warriors have historically been known for their third quarter onslaughts. But in this year's postseason, they've been doing it in the fourth.
Boston has a 2-4 record in clutch games against Milwaukee and Miami. However, they outperformed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in all four games of their first round series. All of those games went to crunch time, and Boston ended up with a first round sweep of Brooklyn, which many considered a title favorite before the season started.
The Warriors team has collectively played in 123 NBA Finals games, thanks to the excellence of Curry, Thompson and Green. They have championship experience, and they have won several times on basketball's highest stage.
The Celtics roster features nobody with Finals experience. Horford, who has played 15 years in the league, is only making his Finals debut now. The Celtics trio of Tatum, Smart and Brown made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018 when they lost to the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. They have their share of clutch baskets, but not in the NBA Finals.
Tatum has some big shoes to fill if he wants to live up to the expectations of his idol, the late Kobe Bryant. Tatum said he looked to Kobe for inspiration in their Game 7 win against Miami in the conference finals. The Celtics lack the experience, but they will no doubt be hungry.
Important to note, the Milwaukee Bucks won the championship last season without a single player with previous NBA Finals experience. The Golden State Warriors also did the same in the 2014-2015 season with then first-time head coach Steve Kerr.
Experience is good, but it isn't necessary to win in the NBA Finals.
A WINNING RECORD AGAINST THE DUBS
The Boston Celtics are the only team with a winning record against the Golden State Warriors in the Steve Kerr era. Boston is 9-7 against Golden State since the 2014-2015 NBA season.
This season, Boston and Golden State split their two regular season matchups. The second matchup was quite controversial after Marcus Smart dove on the floor to retrieve a loose ball and collided with Steph Curry's ankle causing Curry to miss the remainder of the regular season.
Expect Smart to once again be the primary defender of Curry, after holding the greatest shooter in NBA history to 2/8 shooting, including 0/4 from beyond the arc, and five turnovers as his main defender in two regular season matchups this season.
In the two previous seasons, Boston went 4-0 against Golden State. However, the Warriors were not at full strength. In the 2019-2020 NBA season, the injury-plagued Warriors team were without Curry and Thompson. In the 2020-2021 NBA season, Curry averaged 42.5 points in two outings, but he was without Thompson.
The injury bug will take away some luster from this year's NBA Finals. For Boston, Smart, Williams, and even Tatum have had various injuries during this year's playoffs. For Golden State, Payton II, Porter Jr. and Iguodola remain questionable.
Golden State will have homecourt advantage in the playoffs, which is huge considering that Golden State has the best home record in this year's playoffs at 9-0. Golden State remains the lone undefeated team at home so far, and had the second-best home record in the regular season.
Boston is the best road team of the 2021-2022 playoffs at 7-2, including three wins in Miami's homecourt in the conference finals, where the Heat went an undefeated 6-0 in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Golden State has been historically good on the road as well, winning at least one road game in an NBA record 26 consecutive playoff series.
Boston has a pedestrian 5-4 record at home in this year's playoffs. Golden State is in good position to take advantage.
TURNOVERS, TURNOVERS, TURNOVERS
Turnovers have historically been Golden State's weakness. The Warriors average 14.8 turnovers per game in this postseason, which is currently fifth worst among the playoff teams. Boston just might be the team to pounce on this weakness.
The Celtics score 1.24 points per transition possession and 57.3% of transition possessions, both the second highest in this year's playoffs. Careless turnovers will be costly for Golden State given Boston's scoring efficiency in transition.
Boston, however, can also fall prey to costly turnovers. Many of the offensive droughts in the second round and conference finals featured costly turnovers. Both Tatum and Brown have been harshly criticized for turnovers, with Brown's ‘loose' handle being a favorite point of attack for critics.
Golden State is especially deadly in transition, and its top-ranked offense will surely result in a lot of Curry and Poole in-game dance clips if Boston can't take care of the ball.
X'S AND O'S
Both Golden State head coach Steve Kerr and Boston head coach Ime Udoka are mentored by the winningest coach in NBA history, San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich. They will look to continue the winning ways of their mentor, who at 73 years old is in the twilight of his career.
Udoka is piloting a spectacular in-season rebound after Boston started the 2021-2022 season with a string of early losses and his star duo of Tatum and Brown showing signs of conflict over who should be the alpha scorer. He turned things around after getting the Boston roster to buy into his program and focus on defense. He took things a step further with the acquisition of the defensive-minded White from the San Antonio Spurs midseason.
Udoka is seeking to become the fourth person in the last eight seasons to win a championship as a rookie coach, after Steve Kerr, Tyronn Lue with Cleveland and Nick Nurse with Toronto.
Kerr has been in the Finals for six of the last eight years. He has received a lot of flak recently for his performance over the last two years with his main stars sidelined with injury. However, he just barely missed the playoffs last year with Thompson out, and his player development program is shining through once more with the emergence of Poole and other young players like Jonathan Kuminga.
The Warriors dynasty was built around the Big 3 of Curry, Thompson, and Green who were all acquired through the draft and developed in house.
The numbers show that we are in for an exciting NBA Finals. Boston is going for an NBA record 18th championship, while Golden State is aiming for its fourth championship in the last eight seasons, and seventh overall. A championship for the Warriors will give them sole possession of the third-most all-time behind the Celtics and the Lakers.
Source of all stats: NBA.com/stats