The Boston Celtics are going to the NBA Finals.
I’ll admit, that’s not a sentence I expected to be writing after watching them stumble through the first 50 games of the 2021-22 campaign with a .500 record. But Boston turned things around in an unpredictably massive way; now, they’ll face Golden State starting tonight in Game 1 of what should be a wildly entertaining series.
As daunting as that challenge may appear, the Celtics are ready for this moment. They’re battle tested, having gone through an Eastern Conference playoff gauntlet that included Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, and Jimmy Butler’s top-seeded Miami Heat.
They’re hungry, too, with the bulk of the squad’s core coming up short in each of the past four postseasons before breaking through for a title chance this June.
Did they have some shaky moments over the past few months that undoubtedly irked fans and prompted questions on their ability to deliver on the biggest of stages? Absolutely. But right now, none of that matters.
At this point, we all know what Boston is capable of and what they need to do to reach their full potential. First-year head coach Ime Udoka’s group thrives on defense. You can slice it any way you’d like; they were the best defensive team in the NBA for the majority of the season and have the length, versatility and athleticism to make things difficult for any opponent.
Assuming Robert Williams is healthy, Boston has the luxury of deploying two all-defensive talents in their starting lineup along with Marcus Smart. Even at 35 years old, Al Horford is still capable of moving his feet and defending the paint, and both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have grown tremendously on that end of the floor.
Through three playoff rounds, the Celtics have been their own worst enemy. Turnovers and rebounding woes have plagued them at times; it’s those type of avoidable miscues that could make or break their chance at an 18th title.
The only other thing standing in their way? Well, that would be the Warriors.
In many ways, Golden State is a lot like Boston. Both squads have virtually built their rotation from the ground up, drafting talented players, patiently grooming them for a handful of years and riding it out with them.
Of course, the two franchises are also at completely different stages in their development. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and head coach Steve Kerr have been to The Finals in six of the last eight years, winning thrice (2015, 2017, 2018) to supplant their status as a true dynasty.
Curry remains the game’s best and most remarkable shooter. He’s averaged 25.9 points, 6.2 assists and 4.9 rebounds in the 2022 postseason alone. His ‘splash brother’ Thompson is beginning to look like his old self again after missing more than two full seasons with significant injuries.
With his grittiness and defensive tenacity, exponentially high IQ and unselfish nature, Green is as important a piece to any team in the league. Adding an emerging 22-year-old Jordan Poole — do not sleep on this kid — and a multiskilled Andrew Wiggins to the mix only makes them that much more dangerous.
What scares me most about the Warriors is their ability to knock down outside shots. With the exception of starting center Kevon Looney — who by the way has been excellent throughout the postseason — Golden State has four players on the floor at any time that can shoot the lights out, and they don’t need much space, either.
Their half court offense is night and day from what we saw with the Heat, and their transition attack is just as effective.
If the Celtics are going to beat the Dubs four times in seven games, it’s going to come down to their size advantage and ability to switch matchups defensively. Boston prides themselves on that end of the floor, and it’s their consistently stellar defensive efforts that have allowed them to nullify inefficiencies and mental lapses on the other end.
At 6-foot-9, Horford is Boston’s tallest rotational player. Golden State counters with the 6-foot-9 Looney, but it’s the remaining Celtics that make the biggest difference. Rob Williams (6-9), Tatum (6-8), Brown (6-6), Smart (6-3), Grant Williams (6-6) and Derrick White (6-4) all bring length and strength to their respective positions.
Boston held Miami to fewer than 90 points twice in the Eastern Conference Finals. Same goes for the C’s previous series against Milwaukee, which included holding them to just 81 points in a Game 7 rout. That’s almost unheard of in today’s game.
Vegas gives Golden State a slight advantage in the betting odds, while platforms like ESPN’s BPI and FiveThirtyEight have Boston as the overwhelming favorite.
I think it’s a coin flip. If both teams remain healthy, I like the Warriors in seven games. I picked them on record to win it all before the playoffs began, and nothing they’ve done throughout their current run has made me change me mind.
Unlike Miami, Golden State actually boasts a serious home court advantage, too. If it goes the distance I can’t see them losing on their home floor in a win-or-go-home situation.
But don’t rule the Celtics out. This is an exceptional basketball team that’s certainly capable of going toe-to-toe with an aging dynasty squad and coming out on top.
Contact Nick Giannino at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.