Discover more from Marc Stein
NBA Finals Preview
The dynastic Warriors meet the on-the-rise Celtics for #thisleague supremacy. Let's break down the matchup
This much is certain about the forthcoming NBA Finals:
The league’s 2021-22 champions will be a 53-win team (Golden State) … or a 51-win team (Boston).
Milwaukee was the equivalent of a 52-win team last season when Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. won their breakthrough crown. Before the Bucks, no NBA team had won it all with less than 57 wins (or the shortened-season equivalent) since the 52-30 Miami Heat resurrected themselves from a 2-0 Finals deficit to devastate Dallas in 2006.
What it underlines, with Game 1 of Warriors/Celtics looming Thursday night in San Francisco, is that the league in its current state lacks the sort of juggernaut Golden State proved to be during its five successive trips to the Finals from 2015-2019. There are many good teams in today's NBA, but no clear-cut superpower.
On this Newsletter Tuesday, I have seven more pertinent thoughts, factoids and declarations to share about a series that I’m picking Golden State to win in six games. Let's delve …
We got the best possible Finals matchup from a competitive standpoint.
Zillions questioned the shot selection in the moment, but you can understand why Jimmy Butler pulled up for a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left in Game 7 even when he knew better than anyone that the 3-ball is not his specialty. Butler had played every second of Game 7 and surely understood that the Heat were very much on fumes. They didn’t have the gas to get through an overtime even if they forced one — even at home.
It’s a further stretch to imagine the Heat being able to stay with the Warriors in the next round had they reached it, with Butler (knee), Kyle Lowry (hamstring) and Tyler Herro (groin) all playing hurt. I think we’ve all seen enough blowouts and injuries in these playoffs. The prospect of a feisty Finals is most welcome.
The Warriors, though, are still coming into the series healthier than the Celtics in what should be a showdown featuring two elite defenses. Robert Williams' mobility looked suspect in Game 7 thanks to his ongoing knee issues. Then Marcus Smart announced after Boston's Finals-clinching win on Miami's floor that “my right side is all banged up.” Smart, so central to the Celtics' plans for trying to contain Stephen Curry, is dealing with quad, ankle and mid-foot troubles.
The Warriors, by contrast, appear poised to welcome back some important players in the championship round: Gary Payton II (elbow), Otto Porter Jr. (foot) and beloved veteran Andre Iguodala (neck) could all be activated in coming days. Golden State out-depth-ed Dallas to win the West and could well get deeper.
Game 1 will pose a more substantial series-to-series adjustment for Boston than usual.
Defending the Jimmy Butler-centric (and otherwise offensively challenged) Heat is one thing. Coping with Golden State's perpetual movement and myriad shooters is another.
These Celtics will also be stepping onto the Finals stage for the first time. No current Celtic has appeared in a Finals game. It's a completely different environment compared to anything else in the NBA … starting with Wednesday's Media Day madness.
There will be a learning curve here that does not apply to several key Warriors.
We issued this reminder warning during the conference finals and repeat it again now for Boston's benefit: Golden State will always win at least one game at your place.
The Warriors, remember, have won a road game in 26 consecutive playoff series dating to the 2012-13 postseason. Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have been there for all 26, which is indeed an NBA record.
The Celtics are thus advised to win at least one of the first two games at Chase Center if they want to be champions. The good news: Boston hasn’t lost two games in a row since late March. The bad news: Golden State is 9-0 at home in these playoffs.
Boston's defense is the toughest that Golden State will see this season, but the Celtics' poise is a concern.
Maybe it's a strange thing to say about a team that throttled the reigning champions from Milwaukee by 28 points in Game 7 in the second round, but I can't help it.
Boston's inability to close out the dinged-up Heat at home in Game 6, followed by how quickly the Celtics let a 13-point lead get sliced to two in Game 7 crunch time before Butler's ill-fated attempt to shoot Miami into the lead, has stuck with me. I’m more concerned about this for the Celtics than whatever fatigue carries over from the East finals because the NBA Finals are so spaced out, with seven games to be played from June 2-19.
It's undeniably true that the Celtics (9-7) sport the only winning record against the Warriors since the 2014-15 season, when Steve Kerr took over as Golden State’s coach.
You are nonetheless advised to be careful how much stock you put into that eight-season collection of regular-season results.
The regular season is simply not the postseason … as evidenced by the fact that Golden State lost the regular-season series to Denver, Memphis and Dallas by a 3-1 margin in each case. Those are the three teams Golden State just sent home in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Celtics were 25-25 after 50 games, so their path to reach the Finals for the first time since 2010 — for all the Golden State praise we’ve stuffed into this story so far — demands your respect.
Don't forget how the regular season ended, when the Celtics went all out to clinch the East's No. 2 seed while Milwaukee was happily settling into No. 3, even though it would inevitably mean a first-round showdown for Boston with Durant, Kyrie Irving and the widely feared Brooklyn Nets.
The Celtics duly swept Brooklyn, then outlasted Giannis and his Bucks (albeit with the considerable assist of Khris Middleton's injury absence) and prevailed in another Game 7 against Butler at his stubborn best.
The Celts, in other words, really earned this Finals berth. They are the first team to reach the Finals with a .500 (or worse) record at the 50-game mark since the 1980-81 Houston Rockets, who rallied from a 22-28 start to eke into the playoffs at 40-42 and make it all the way to the title round led by Moses Malone and Coach Del Harris.
Curry is going to win not only his fourth championship ring but also his first Finals MVP trophy, filling one of the few holes in his revolutionary résumé and likely sparking more legacy talk than you can stomach.
In this Tuesday Newsletter Extravaganza in June 2020, while I was still with The New York Times, I explained at length why I had zero regrets about casting one of the seven votes that enabled Iguodala to win Finals MVP honors in 2015. I urge you to read the whole section on that vote, but here’s an excerpt:
The Warriors, remember, lost two of the first three games of those finals to a short-handed Cavaliers team. There was grave concern in the Golden State camp that Cleveland, even without the injured Kevin Love and having lost Kyrie Irving after Game 1, had seized control of the series.
I know this terrain doubly well because I was the lone voter in 2007 who chose Tim Duncan over Tony Parker as the finals M.V.P. when San Antonio swept James’s Cavaliers. I was criticized for that, too.
In 2007, I used an argument on Duncan’s behalf similar to one laid out expertly by Adams in last week’s piece — that Iguodala’s offensive success wouldn’t have been possible without all the defensive attention Curry attracted. That Warriors team, as statistics cited by Adams illustrate, needed Curry on the floor for nearly 43 minutes per game because it could barely survive without him.
I made my 2007 vote because, as electric as Parker was, my contention was that the Spurs could never have dominated the Cavaliers to the extent that they did without Duncan’s tremendous influence offensively and defensively. I was outvoted nine to one.
The big difference for me in 2015 is that the Warriors were not dominating. Not even close. They were borderline reeling until Iguodala was moved into the starting lineup for Game 4.
That’s why he got my vote and presumably six more.
It also didn’t hurt that Iguodala, Golden State’s defense-first veteran, matched Curry’s 25 points in the Game 6 clincher.
The reason we remain so fixated on the 2015 voting, of course, is because Durant joined Golden State and won Finals MVP honors in 2017 and 2018, creating a legacy void for Curry that, in retrospect, feels unfair. Curry’s persona, leadership, unwavering confidence and joy on the job have all combined to help make the Warriors what they’ve been for the past eight seasons as much as his game-changing shooting range.
And now, mercifully, he gets another crack at the rare elite individual prize that has eluded him.
I’m pretty sure when I say that Curry would sign away another Finals MVP trophy right now if he knew it would guarantee a fourth championship. He really is as selfless as advertised. Fortunately for him, if Golden State does beat Boston, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Curry isn’t also named Finals MVP at last.
The Stein Line is a reader-supported newsletter, with both free and paid subscriptions available, and those who opt for the paid edition are taking an active role in the reporting by providing vital assistance to bolster my independent coverage of the league. Feel free to forward this post to family and friends interested in the NBA and please consider becoming a paid subscriber to have full access to all of my posts.
As a reminder: Tuesday editions, on this and every Newsletter Tuesday, go out free to anyone who signs up, just as my Tuesday pieces did in their New York Times incarnation.
The Printed Word
There are few things I enjoy more than a glossy NBA magazine.
My articles that have appeared in magazines over the years are especially treasured. I pretty much felt the same way every time my drivel made it into newsprint form at The New York Times, but magazines really are next-level.
And I still get so excited to see basketball publications that, when I travel abroad, I’ll buy them in languages I can’t really read, simply because they’re such a rare treat nowadays on U.S. soil. (Example: I lose it any time I receive a fresh copy of Gigantes del Basket and, no, I don’t know nearly enough Spanish to justify the reaction.)
It was a wonderful surprise, then, to be checking out all the new stuff I hadn’t seen yet at SFO’s reimagined Harvey Milk Terminal on Friday afternoon before my flight home from the Western Conference finals and discovering that The Associated Press has a 75th anniversary season tribute mag out now with all kinds of photos and history lessons.
Then I had to laugh when I got to Page 74 and found one of the funniest pictures I’ve ever been a part of: Me looking absolutely (and, to this day, inexplicably) terrified as Shaquille O’Neal walked past me as he stepped onto the dais for his introductory press conference after being traded to the Phoenix Suns in 2008.
A definite Shaqtin’ moment for your humble correspondent.
By my count, Darvin Ham interviewed for a head coaching job with at least nine NBA other teams before the Los Angeles Lakers hired him as their new coach. Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Indiana, Minnesota, Orlando, Sacramento, Washington and the LA Clippers all included Ham in their most recent coaching searches.
Ham’s hiring by the Lakers means the NBA’s 30 teams now feature 15 Black head coaches — 16 head coaches of color including Miami’s Erik Spoelstra (Filipino American).
Boston's Jayson Tatum moved into first place in minutes logged this postseason by playing 46 minutes in Sunday's Game 7 victory over Miami, taking Tatum's total to 737 minutes. Tatum passed Dallas' Reggie Bullock (707), who is one of three Mavericks in the top five along with No. 3 Dorian Finney-Smith (688) and No. 5 Jalen Brunson (629). The Celtics' Jaylen Brown (687) is fourth and the Heat's Jimmy Butler (629) is tied with Brunson at No. 5, according to Basketball Reference.
Paul Millsap's 130 career playoff games without a trip to the NBA Finals now rank as the most in league history. Boston's Al Horford, Millsap’s former Atlanta teammate who has appeared in 141 playoff games, held the top spot on that list until the Celtics won Game 7 in Miami.
A gem from my pal Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press: Only two players this season have played every second of an NBA game. They are Oklahoma City's Georgios Kalaitzakis in a 50-point loss to the Clippers on the last day of the regular season ... and Miami's Jimmy Butler in Sunday night's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Klay Thompson's eight 3-pointers in Golden State's series-clinching Game 5 victory over Dallas marked the fifth time in Thompson's career that he sank at least eight 3s in a playoff game. Thompson is now No. 1 in that category in league history, according to Basketball Reference, ahead of Ray Allen, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard (who all have four such games).
The NBA has committed to play games in three foreign countries next season, scheduling exhibition games in Abu Dhabi and Japan and one regular-season game in January (Detroit vs. Chicago) in Paris. The NBA last staged a game abroad in January 2020 (Milwaukee vs. Charlotte in Paris) shortly before the coronavirus pandemic. Its last exhibition game abroad was a Nets-Lakers game in China in October 2019.
The Basketball Africa League, won by Tunisian club US Monastir, featured 12 teams from 12 African countries playing a 38-game season in three major African cities: Dakar, Senegal; Cairo, Egypt; and Kigali, Rwanda.