Sometimes it just feels good to be right. After proclaiming before the NBA Finals started that the Boston Celtics had zero chance against the Golden State Warriors, the Dubs beat the Celtics by double-digits in Game 6 to end the series 4-2. Many across the internet chided this bold proclamation based on the Cinderella run the Celts were then on. Some bought into the knee-jerk reaction of the Celtics’ Game 1 miracle game (more on that later). So how did so many people inside and outside TD Garden get duped? Let’s revisit the points made in that article which were partially muddled behind a hyperbolic headline.
The Celtics struggled to score
The first point was how dominating an offensive juggernaut the Warriors are now that they’re at full strength. It also outlined the difficulties the Celtics had in scoring against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the ECF, the Celtics averaged 105 points a game. This was well under the 110 a game they averaged during the regular season, which was good for 15th best in the league.
They fared even worse against the Warriors and could not break 100 in four of the six games. The anemic offense I described reared its ugly head against the No. 2 ranked Warriors defense. This is 2022. You’re not going to be able to win a Finals series while unable to break 100 points a game. In the two games they did, they scored 116 in Game 3 and then 120 in their Game 1 miracle game. On the other hand, the Warriors scored over 100 every game and beat the Celtics by double digits in all four wins.
The emergence of Andrew Wiggins
When Steve Kerr substituted in Andre Iguodala at the end of the game as a sign of respect to this long-time grizzled vet, Iggy embraced Andrew Wiggins with laser-focused intensity. Iggy has been grooming Wiggins as the successor to his Finals role back in 2015. Iguodala won the Finals MVP that year against the Cleveland Cavaliers by providing clutch shooting and lockdown defense. Sound familiar?
As expressed in the first article, Wiggins made life hell for Jayson Tatum, forcing him into one of the worst Finals performances for a star in recent NBA history. But Wiggins became an offensive weapon in his own right, averaging 18 ppg and hitting clutch buckets in their Game 4 win to tie the series. And while Wiggins didn’t win the Finals MVP as Iguodala did, there was certainly a case he should have. Just look at Tatum’s shooting stats for the Finals, 36.7 percent from the field.
Ime Udoka’s inexperience
Did the Warriors haters believe a rookie head coach could beat a three-time champion and top 15 greatest coach of all time? Now that’s some serious self-convincing. The original article gave Udoka all of his flowers for completely turning around the Celtics’ fortunes. But to say that over-achievement would extend to beating one of the greatest teams of all time? Come on.
Udoka instilled a will to win in the Celts not seen since the 2008 squad. They proved they could take a punch and keep on getting back up. But after the Game 4 collapse, he often looked like a deer in the headlights. His team continued to play sloppy, turnover-prone basketball. And he could not adjust his defense to stop the Warriors from attacking the paint at will. As a result, the Celtics often rode Tatum’s ice-cold hand when Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart were the better options.
Kerr, on the other hand, has been here before. He knows what it takes to win in the Finals and what it takes to lose. This was his sixth Finals, where he won four championships, two with Kevin Durant and two without. If Kerr could scheme against Lebron James, he could certainly figure out how to beat Tatum. And he did.
Steph Curry vs. Marcus Smart
Marcus Smart deservingly won Defensive Player of the Year this season, the first guard to do so since Gary “The Glove” Payton. He built an impressive resume of this playoff run by putting the clamps down on Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving, and Kyle Lowry. But Steph Curry is a different beast. Smart met up with Curry as the Splash Brother was putting on his best playoff showing, averaging 25.9 through the first three rounds.
Against Smart, Curry upped the ante, averaging a blistering 31.2 ppg on his way to winning the Finals MVP. Smart had no answer for Curry. He shot 43.7 percent from three in the Finals and 48 percent from the field and chipped in six rebounds and five assists per game. Curry’s 31.2 ppg would be a career-best in the Finals. Without taking anything away from Smart, Curry showed he is in a different class than the other guards the DPOY faced in these playoffs. Curry made an argument for being in the top 20 of all time after this run. That Curry accomplished this against a Defensive Player of the Year only strengthens his case.
The comeback story
The Warriors’ return to glory has been magnificent to witness. They’ve gone from villain to underdog in just three seasons. Once Kevin Durant left for Brooklyn, the Warriors had to find themselves again. They retooled and rebuilt organically. The three major draft picks of the past two years (James Wiseman, Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga) barely played these Finals. Those three will play a more significant role moving forward, keeping the Dubs in contention as long as Curry’s jumper stays wet.
Not to mention Wiggins is only 27 and Jordan Poole is 22. But for the Warriors to reclaim their crown, they had to go through the shit first. It’s a miracle Thompson has come back a shade of himself after a grueling ACL injury that kept him out for more than two years, seeing action after 941 days of recovery. The two seasons after their 2019 Finals appearance, they went 15 -50 and 39 -33. Those two brutal years humbled a squad that had just been proclaimed one of the greatest. That humility appeared to be just what the doctor ordered, as the Warriors used their underdog status to keep their foot on the gas toward winning the championship.
The original article stated, “the Warriors have three Hall-of-Famers at their disposal, a deep bench full of two-way studs, an emerging star in Jordan Poole, and Andrew Wiggins, who is having a career renaissance after limiting Luka Dončić in the Western Conference finals.” While an obvious observation, it remains a rock-solid argument for why the Celtics were about to face their most crucial test yet.
The core of this team
Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson have been in the trenches together through five Finals while experiencing the highest of highs and lowest of lows.
The Celtics’ big three of Tatum, Brown, and Smart have also been together for a while, but this was their first Finals. The pressure is immense. Not just for the players but the coaching staff as well. The Warriors’ big three trust their coach and vice versa. These Warriors remained calm and collected, even after getting punched in the mouth during Game 1. The Finals pressure-cooker turned the Celtics into turnover machines. Heading into Game 6, the Celtics held a 16.3 percent turnover rate in the Finals. The Houston Rockets had the worst turnover rate in the regular season at 16.2 percent. Many of those turnovers were unforced errors. Essentially they were caused by jitters — experience matters.
The Game 1 fluke was never more apparent, which NBA lemmings were prone to reactionary hot takes. Between Celtics bench reserves Al Horford and Derrick White, the two hit 11 threes on 11-16 combined shooting to lead a stunning fourth-quarter rally. Of course, those who have been watching basketball for a while know miracle runs by supporting players happen from time to time. But they usually only amount to feel-good stories, not a paradigm of sustainability. Need proof?
In the next game, Horford scored two points. After his white-hot shooting, White would disappear back into the ether, as he averaged a pithy 7.6 points for the other five games of the Finals. Horford would only score in double digits two more times, 11 points in Game 3 and 19 points in Game 6. If the Celtics were to win the Finals, that 3-point barrage would have needed to come from either Brown, Smart, or Tatum .
Unfortunately, during that same game, Tatum had 12 points on 1-5 shooting from 3. Tatum’s Game 1 performance would be a more accurate sign of things to come than Horford’s and White’s. If the Celtics had not had such a miracle game from two of their most inconsistent bench players, the Warriors would have won Game 1, and this series would have ended where it should have been at 4-1.
I guess that’s why they call it “the luck of the Irish.” But, unfortunately, that luck ran out against experience and championship mettle.