It would be Stephen Curry’s fourth NBA championship or Jayson Tatum’s first. It would be a comeback story for the ages for Klay Thompson, or a fairytale ending to first-time head coach Ime Udoka’s debut.
The stakes are high for Golden State and the Boston Celtics in the 2022 NBA Finals, two teams that need to prove themselves. For Golden State, it’s a chance to brave the odds to revive a dynasty after two seasons away from the spotlight. For Boston and its rising stars, this is, as they say, when legends are made.
Here’s a look at what to expect in the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday in San Francisco.
Third-ranked Golden State has home advantage over second-ranked Boston due to its better regular-season record.
Experience may not be everything.
After the Boston Celtics won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, there was a mixture of confidence and awe in her words about facing Golden State in the NBA Finals.
“We know we’re up against a great team in the Warriors. Great players, great organization,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “They have the track record to prove it. You know exactly what is important. They were here. They are vets. We know we have a long way to go but we are up for the challenge.”
These playoffs are marked by a gap in experience, with one team well experienced in championship basketball and another filled with newcomers at this stage. Golden State has five players who have played multiple finals – Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevon Looney and Andre Iguodala. The Celtics don’t have a player who has made it this far.
Part of this is a function of age. Boston’s roster is filled with players in their 20s, while Golden State is a group of 30-year-olds whose lives have changed since their first Finals appearances.
“Just being able to even just balance family life,” Curry said after Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. “I am blessed to have children who are now 9, 6 and 3 years old. Like when I was 14, 15 chasing the playoffs, just a different vibe to everything that’s going on in life.”
Smart was a 21-year-old rookie in 2015, the first time Curry, Green and Thompson had won an NBA championship. Jayson Tatum, who was named this year’s Eastern Conference Finals MVP, was in 11th grade. Her teammate, Jaylen Brown, had just graduated from high school and wanted to play college basketball at the University of California, Berkeley – just 11 miles from where Golden State was then playing.
By the 2015 championship, with the exception of Looney, whom the Warriors called up a few weeks after winning the title, all of the Golden State Return Finalists contestants had years of experience and early playoff exits behind them.
The 2021-22 Celtics have similarly spent the last few years learning how to win in the playoffs and dealing with the bitterness of defeat. Boston has been in the playoffs every year since 2015 and has made four conference finals.
But Golden State’s journey shows that finals experience isn’t everything.
When the Warriors won the championship in 2015, they faced a team from the Cleveland Cavaliers led by LeBron James. James made his fifth consecutive Finals appearance and sixth overall. But he couldn’t stop Golden State from winning the series in six games.
But James was also relatively new to the team. Golden State’s extensive experience will carry the team this month.
forecast: Golden State in six.
Draymond Green is the “emotional leader” of Golden State.
Stephen Curry is known to have dumped more 3-pointers than anyone in history. Klay Thompson is still basking in his triumphant return from two disastrous injuries. And Jordan Poole, who emerged from the morass of Golden State’s two dynastic hiatus seasons, has emerged as one of the league’s most dynamic young scorers.
As the Warriors return to the NBA Finals, several players have fueled their run. But with all the team’s pyrotechnics, is it possible that Draymond Green – the team’s highly opinionated, referee-crunching spokesman – is somehow being overlooked? OK, maybe not. But in his 10th season, Green is making it to the finals for the sixth time, and it’s no coincidence. He’s the defense-oriented, pass-first force that bonds his teammates in more ways than one.
“Our emotional leader,” said coach Steve Kerr.
And Green has rarely, if ever, played better basketball than this postseason. In Golden State’s win over the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals, he had 17 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds while shooting 6 of 7 from the field. He quarterbacked the offense. He was a threat to the defense. He used up five of his six personal fouls.
He also avoided participating in many of the extracurricular activities that had hampered him in the past — at least until after the game, when he spoke of facing the Celtics with a championship. The problem was that the Celtics were still playing the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, the Heat would force a game 7 before falling short. But in Green’s eyes, he was never wrong.
“I thought they were the better team, and obviously I wasn’t far awayGreen said this week on San Francisco’s KGMZ-FM, the Golden State’s radio station.
In his own way, Green has been a source of stability for the organization as the team has struggled with injuries in recent seasons. He mentored his younger teammates. He wore uniform when Curry and Thompson were away. He acknowledged it wasn’t always easy: He was used to fighting for championships, and suddenly Golden State had the worst record in the league.
Now, back alongside Curry and Thompson, Green has another title in sight.
“I can’t say I thought coming into this season like, ‘Yo, we’re going to win a championship,’ or ‘We’re going to be in the NBA Finals,'” Green said. “But I always believed with the three of us that we had a chance.”
Forecast: Rested and more experienced, Golden State wins the series in six games.
They’re both great on defense but different on offense.
The connections between Celtics coach Ime Udoka and Golden State coach Steve Kerr – both former NBA role players – are numerous. Both led their teams to the Finals in their first seasons as head coaches, Kerr in 2014-15 when Golden State won the championship and Udoka that year.
They are also linked to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Udoka was an assistant at Spurs from 2012 to 2019, which led to a championship in 2014. Udoka also played three seasons for the Spurs while Kerr played four seasons at San Antonio and won two championships. Both also worked with Popovich on the US men’s national basketball team.
Popovich’s influence is clear. Udoka and Kerr preached the value of a steadfast defense. Boston and Golden State were the top two defensive teams in the NBA during the regular season. And like Popovich, the coaches are ready to publicly and bluntly criticize players.
Where they diverge is offensive.
Udoka has incorporated a methodical, slower attack. The Celtics frequently isolate and rank at the top of the NBA during the regular season, while Golden State was at the bottom.
That’s partly down to the staff: Boston’s two best players, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are adept at getting to the rim and breaking through defenses one-for-one, but less so at passing. Additionally, the Celtics start with Marcus Smart as their point guard, and he’s not a traditional passing first guard.
Kerr, meanwhile, has long preached an egalitarian offense that depends on ball movement — so much so that after leaving Golden State for the Nets in 2019, Kevin Durant complained that Kerr’s offense was limiting. This season, Golden State led the NBA in making cuts to the basket, while the Celtics were just about league average. Golden State was also second in the league for total passes.
There is one more difference. Kerr is more willing to experiment with lineups. He’s gifted vital minutes to rookies like Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga, getting them in and out of the rotation. In the playoffs, Kerr gave 19-year-old Kuminga three starts in the semifinals series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Moody, 20, was in the conference finals rotation against the Dallas Mavericks.
Udoka has preferred to keep his rotations fairly predictable, particularly in the playoffs, and rarely resorted to the Celtics’ bench even in the event of nasty troubles.
Forecast: Celtics in six. Their defenses are well designed to chase Stephen Curry around.