It’s finally the moment we’ve all been waiting for – 225 days, all for this. Well, not quite yet, but come Thursday night, the Golden State Warriors will take on the Boston Celtics in game one of the NBA Finals to kick off what should be a long, hard-fought series for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Golden State will have a bit of a rest advantage coming into this series – they’ll have had a full week off when the opening tip goes up on Thursday, while Boston will have had just three days off after grueling games six and seven against Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. Three days off is a good amount of rest, but the Warriors should have the fresher legs coming into this series.
Road to the Finals
Before we get into the actual series, how exactly did these teams get here?
These two teams had extremely different paths to get to this point. Golden State began the season hot right out of the gate, and heading into February Golden State was 38-13. Boston on the other hand had a sluggish start to put it kindly. On January 21, Boston found themselves sitting a game under .500 at 23-24 and tenth in the East following a home loss to a Portland Trail Blazers team that finished the season 27-55.
From that moment on, something clicked in the Boston locker room. They picked themselves up, got back on their feet, and haven’t stopped running since. Have they faced adversity? Most certainly. They were down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but with their backs against the wall they won game six in Milwaukee and closed out the series at home in game seven. They found themselves up 3-2 at home in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals but they let that opportunity slip and bounced back with a win on the road in game seven to keep their championship hopes alive.
Boston is as resilient as they come, but so is Golden State. After missing the playoffs the last two seasons, they finally got healthy for this playoff run and it turns out that’s about all they needed to return to the finest and brightest stage in basketball.
Enough of the fluff, let’s get into this thing, shall we?
Defense, Defense, Defense
Everyone loves to talk about Boston’s great defense, but how about Golden State’s? Sitting directly behind Boston’s #1 defensive rating in the league this season (106.2) was Golden State’s defense (106.6).
Golden State hasn’t been quite that good defensively in the playoffs, but you best believe they’re going to be locked in on that end all series long and they’re more than capable of bothering Boston’s offense.
The Warriors split their two matchups with Boston in the regular season but the first matchup came early in the season when both teams’ rotations were a lot different than they are now and in the second matchup Stephen Curry went out late in the second quarter after suffering a foot injury. Not to mention, Andrew Wiggins was out and Draymond Green had just recently returned from injury.
However, there are still some things that can be taken away from that 110-88 loss to Boston on March 16.
Much like we’ve seen from the Warriors in the past, they’re going to be creative in their approach to slow down Jayson Tatum and the Celtics’ offense.
In that late March matchup, Golden State would periodically throw a zone defense at the Celtics. It’ll be interesting to see how often Steve Kerr chooses to utilize a zone defense in this series, but at the very least it’s a good way to stay somewhat unpredictable on that end, because what’s the best way to beat a zone? Shooting. But, Boston has two non-shooters in its rotation in Derrick White and Robert Williams, and although Marcus Smart can hit from out there, he’s another guy the Warriors will more than likely encourage to shoot the deep ball.
Defending the pick and roll will also be a big part of the series for Golden State. In their series against Dallas, the Warriors were able to get away with Kevon Looney and others switching onto Luka Doncic at times but because of the burst and athleticism that Tatum and Jaylen Brown possess, it’ll be much more difficult to get away with that in the Finals.
In their last matchup with Boston, Golden State did two different things in the pick and roll to keep Tatum and Brown in check.
The more frequently used strategy was their use of ICE-ing pick and rolls when Tatum or Brown was the ball-handler. What this means is that the on-ball defender forces the ball-handler to reject the screen to prevent them from getting to the middle of the floor and into the heart of the paint. This coverage is really only effective when defending a side pick-and-roll, which is a pick and roll run from the slot and wing areas of the floor.
This coverage does basically concede the pick and pop three, which Al Horford can knock down pretty well. If Horford and some of Boston’s other screeners like White, Smart and Grant Williams hit that shot enough it might eventually force Golden State to switch all on-ball screens and that would create advantages for Brown and Tatum.
The other strategy Golden State used was sending an aggressive hard hedge at Tatum or a quick double team, particularly off Smart, when Tatum called for a pick and roll in the middle of the floor. Tatum is Boston’s best playmaker and the Warriors are going to want the ball out of his hands as much as possible.
Golden State won’t solely use these two coverages – Boston is too darn good to throw the same thing at them all series, but I do think Golden State can be successful if they opt to utilize them again.
Over the years Kerr has typically gambled on the percentages working in his favor over the course of a seven-game series and I don’t envision this series being any different. Golden State is going to try and force the ball out of Tatum and Brown’s hands and make players like Smart, White and both of the Williams’ beat them.
Milwaukee tried a similar strategy versus Boston in the second round and it ended up being the nail in the coffin in game seven when Grant Williams scored 27 points while knocking down 7 of his 18 threes.
That’s not to say it’s a bad strategy or that it won’t work, it’s just a gamble.
Attacking Boston’s Defense
When Golden State’s offense is clicking, it’s tough to envision anybody being able to do anything besides hope and pray that they miss shots. But the Celtics do have the length, athleticism and IQ to handle the Warriors’ free-flowing, explosive offense.
So what can the Warriors do to ensure their offense is successful enough to win their fourth championship in 8 seasons?
The first key is valuing each and every possession. The only team the Warriors have faced this postseason that could switch across the board like Boston will, was Memphis. Golden State averaged 17.8 turnovers per game in their series versus Memphis and that probably won’t cut it against Boston.
Against a truly stellar defense like Boston, one way to get an advantage is to get out and run so that you’re not facing a set defense every time. As good as the Warriors can be in the halfcourt, they’re at their best in the open court. And this is where their offense will rely on their defense.
In playoff wins, Boston averages just 11.9 turnovers per game, but in their playoff losses, they’ve averaged 16 turnovers per game. If Golden State can force Boston into turnovers, it should do wonders for their offense.
Another key for the Warriors is getting Draymond Green to be aggressive looking for his own offense all series long. Don’t change his role – he should still be looking to facilitate before anything else but he has to take his shots when the opportunities are there.
The Warriors are 279-82 in Green’s career when he scores eight or more points. 279-82.
Reinforcements on the Way?
Both the Warriors and Celtics have been banged up throughout this postseason. Marcus Smart and Robert Williams, arguably Boston’s two best defenders, have both missed time throughout their playoff run so far.
Golden State has missed Andre Iguodala for the entirety of the postseason, Gary Payton II went down in game two in round two and hasn’t played since, and Otto Porter Jr. has missed three of the Warriors’ last six games.
Health could very well be a factor in this series.
Good news for Golden State, coach Kerr had positive things to say about the possibility of those three returning at some point in the Finals. “None of them scrimmaged, but they all took part in practice. So they’re all progressing and doing pretty well, and we’ll have an update again tomorrow and the next day. We’ll just see where it all goes.”
If even one of them can return, it’ll be a huge boost for Dub Nation.
This series is a clash of what truly is the two best teams in basketball. Both teams may find themselves feeling like they have their backs against the wall at some point or another but nobody has dealt with adversity better than Golden State and Boston this season.
The deciding factor may just be whose role players hit more shots. I’m expecting a big series from the Splash Brothers and there’s no reason to believe Jayson Tatum won’t continue to step up in big moments like he has all postseason.
Boston’s defense has had a great deal of success against some of the best of the best this postseason – Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, among others – but Golden State is a different beast. They don’t just rely on one or two guys to provide offense. They rely on everyone in some way or another.
Curry will get ring number #4 and finally receive the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award.
Golden State in 7.
Main Image Credit: