Like most good theater, the NBA Finals pit the good guys, the Mission Bay Dubs (aka Golden State Warriors), against the bad guys, the Boston Celtics, with the climax unknown and uncertain. Happy endings are not guaranteed.
The big picture
Most media will characterize the contest as great offense (Dubs) vs. great defense (Celtics). In reality, it will probably be a battle between two gritty and intelligent defensive teams with some spectacular shooting and jaw-dropping offensive plays thrown in as an added attraction.
Along with athletic prowess, the head game played by the two coaches (Dubs’ Steve Kerr and Celtics Ime Udoka) will add to the drama. Throughout the series, and within games, each will adjust their plans, and adjust to the other’s adjustments, as they hunt for weaknesses to exploit. It’s been analogized to chess, but the players have considerably more agency than pawns and knights.
As individuals, a team, and an organization, the Dubs have been here before. Though the Boston franchise has won many championships, those were in the deep past. This group has played in a lot of playoff games, but never for a championship. Neither have any individual Boston players.
Will experience, guile, innovative schemes and relentless movement prevail?
Or will size and muscle muck up the show, and trample the way to victory?
Perhaps the most important question is: Who will get hurt? Though professional basketball doesn’t amp up the violence like football or hockey, it’s not gentle. Ask Gary Payton II, who suffered a fractured elbow after an opposing player clubbed him from behind. Nothing can change a game, or determine a series more than injuries to one or two key players. Entering the first game, the Dubs appear to be healthier.
When the Dubs have the ball
The Dubs will try to pick up the pace and not give Boston time to set up its defense.
Most teams stand around and watch superstars go one-on-one against overmatched defenders. In contrast, the Dubs play like a buzzed ballet company, with everyone dancing around in choreographed movements.
Once in a while, try not to follow the guy with the ball, but focus on what the other players are doing.
The Dubs’ mantra is to “give up a good shot for a great shot.” That is why the Dubs pass the ball around so much more than other teams. Everybody gets a touch.
Most teams fear Steph Curry and don’t want to let him get in a rhythm. He will often get hounded or trapped by two guys, opening up a four-on-three advantage for the Dubs. The attention Curry draws (his “gravity”) provides opportunities for the others, especially Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins.
When the Dubs miss shots, Kevon Looney and Andrew Wiggins hustle to get the rebound and put it back up or pass it to a teammate for an open shot.
The havoc created by moving the ball and bodies is a strength. Also a weakness. Because it demands intense attention, self-control and precise movements, players tend to move too fast or get careless or make one too many passes. When that happens and they lose the ball to the other team, it’s called a “turnover.” The Dubs win when they limit their turnovers.
This version of the Dubs did not begin playing together until April. Boston hasn’t played any team remotely comparable. Watch the Celtics use their size, strength and length to get in the way of the scurrying Dubs. They will guard as close and tight as possible to shut down open long-range three-point shots. And no one bothers Steph Curry more than Marcus Smart.
In addition to pressing up close to guys on the perimeter, Boston will also deploy one or two guys under the basket in case a player gets loose.
Earlier this month, the Dubs got some practice against this kind of defense when they played the Memphis Grizzlies.
It is a defense that leaves open jump shots from 10 to 15 feet away from the basket (“midrange”), considered the most difficult and inefficient, as they are worth two points instead of the slightly longer shot, worth three points. To win, the Dubs will have to take and make midrange shots consistently. They have players who can do it.
When the Celtics have the ball
Though they can run, Boston prefers a slower, more methodical pace.
Like most NBA teams, they either dribble or pass the ball to a player in the middle (the painted lane called “the paint”), then kick it out to a player on the perimeter or in the corner, who will have the option to shoot, dribble in closer, or pass.
The Celtics are not very creative and will try to take advantage of Curry, who’s “small,” and Jordan Poole, who they can zip around or fake into fouls. When bottled up, Boston will look to Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown to bail the team out by pushing past an overmatched defender or making an unbelievable shot. Both are prone to overdoing the star thing and making mistakes.
The rest of the team, though not great shooters, can hit a healthy number of shots when they get open.
Although Andrew Wiggins will be the primary defender against Tatum, watch for Gary Payton II to take a turn. It’s always a show when Payton takes the court.
The Dubs defense is underrated and under-appreciated. As creative as they are on offense, they play defense with the same flair and ingenuity. In part, because of their lack of size, they have little choice. The Celtics will see a kaleidoscope of defensive alignments designed to throw them off balance. Despite the coordination difficulty, the Dubs can play this way because they talk to each other and they have Draymond Green directing traffic.
Why the Celtics will win
Height, weight and arm length, combined with other-world scoring from Jayson Tatum.
Why the Dubs will win
Speed, creativity, experience and elite marksmanship from Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins.
What the pundits say
They split on who will win, but agree the series will be long and closely fought. The bookies, at the time of this writing, show the Dubs as slight favorites.
Dubs to prevail. To me, timing is everything, and while the Dubs showed consistent improvement over the past three rounds, the Celtics played inconsistently, barely surviving against their last two flawed opponents.
Whoever comes out on top, the games will be filled with intense highs and anxious lows so as to make the overall event highly entertaining.