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2022 NBA Finals Scouting Report: How the Celtics and Warriors match up

2022 NBA Finals Scouting Report: How the Celtics and Warriors match up

The NBA Finals are here!

In one corner, the Boston Celtics have broken through. Multiple appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals have ended in heartbreak over the past decade. Not this time — Kevin Durant's Brooklyn Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks and Jimmy Butler's Miami Heat were brought into the mud in the half-court, all failing to find enough answers to knock the Celtics off.

In the other corner are the tried-and-true Golden State Warriors. Injury woes and roster turnover around their core had them down for a stretch. But here they are, back in the Finals for the sixth time in eight seasons. The singular greatness of Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic couldn't conquer this squad; the athletic, paint-owning Grizzlies couldn't keep the Warriors away from the rim.

So, here we are. There's plenty of offensive star power to be had: Stephen Curry, Jayson Tatum, Jordan Poole, Jaylen Brown and Klay Thompson will all make back-breaking shots.

But the draw is the defense. These were the NBA's best squads in terms of Defensive Rating. Draymond Green (2016-17) and Marcus Smart (2021-22) rightfully have Defensive Player of the Year awards under their belts. To quote Draymond, they're "absolutely incredible" on that end.

But don't forget about Al Horford, Derrick White, Grant Williams and Robert Williams III on Boston's side. Don't forget about Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney, a hopefully-healthy Gary Payton II or a fresh-legged Andre Iguodala on Golden State's.

Oh, right. The superstars — Curry and Tatum — are pretty darn good in their own right.

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I’m not a coach — I'm just a pun-loving basketball fan with a hankering for film breakdowns. But instead of a traditional series preview, I decided to go into the basketball trenches and devise game plans for both teams. The tone of this two-part article will be a little more informal, but it will still be informative. (At least I hope. If you want to watch/listen instead, check out The Dunker Spot's latest episode!)

Without further ado, here is how the Celtics and Warriors will both try to stop each other.

First, we'll dig into Boston.

BOSTON'S LIKELY DEFENSIVE MATCHUPS

Marcus Smart —> Stephen Curry

Jaylen Brown —> Klay Thompson

Al Horford —> Andrew Wiggins

Jayson Tatum —> Draymond Green

Robert Williams III —> Kevon Looney

Tatum on Green may seem odd on the surface, but it makes a great deal of sense for the Celtics. Per Second Spectrum, the Curry-Green pick-and-roll has generated roughly 1.10 points per possession (PPP) on direct hookups during the Steve Kerr era — an elite number. You can't play drop (1.13 PPP), and you can't blitz Curry unless you want to get 4-on-3'd to death.

Switching gives you a chance to keep things in front. Guess what Tatum on Green allows you to do?

WHERE I'D DIFFER: ROBERT WILLIAMS III ON ANDREW WIGGINS

Putting Timelord on Looney seems safe because Looney isn't a shooter or a dangerous roll man — though he shouldn't be completely slept on as a roller. But the pick-and-rolls aren't the problem; it's the off-ball stuff.

The Dubs can hit you with more traditional pindowns and pry Curry free:

Or they'll run some decoy action before hitting you with the okie-doke. This is their favorite:

That's a missed shot, but you see why it's a pet set for them, right? If you can't get a handle on that action, Curry will rain fire for the entire series. That can't happen.

Wiggins has off-ball use, but he isn't the same threat as a screener like Looney is. The big fella sets roughly 30 off-ball picks per 100 possessions, nearly four times as often as Wiggins (7.3). Add in the knee concerns, and this may be Timelord's best path to being a roamer.

BASE COVERAGE: SWITCH

At 15.2 picks per 100 possessions, no team switched off-ball screens at a higher rate than the Celtics. Only the Heat (29.2) switched pick-and-rolls at a higher rate than the Celtics (28.6). That's the power of having a rotation filled with versatile defenders that can slide up or down the positional scale — and also Payton Pritchard.

Flattening out the Warriors' half-court attack will be step one — Steph one, if you will — to bringing them in the mud. Golden State has guys who can make tough shots, and they don't stop moving, but it's better to force them late in the clock.

PLAYS TO WATCH FOR

We've already hit on the Looney play. That's going to be the most annoying one to track. Beyond that, the Warriors' post-split action will be tough. The switches will have to be clean, timely and physical. Missing any of those three will lead to openings. 

You've gotta appreciate the way they set it up. During the regular season, Golden State would have some sort of a screen set — a pick-and-roll or a cross-screen underneath — to force a switch before the post-up begins. From there, it's a bevy of cuts, flares and — if all else fails — a bit of two-man game.

Payton (elbow) will likely be back at some point this series. (He's reportedly trending toward a game-time decision for Game 1, per The Athletic's Shams Charania.) He'll mostly be used as a screener and cutter, but the Dubs tossed out this doozy during the regular season. I wouldn't be surprised if they try to sneak it in again.

For the most part, the sets are secondary. The Warriors take advantage of early miscues of course, but the real problem area is what they can create after things break down.

STOP THE STAR: STEPHEN CURRY

No player epitomizes "it ain't over 'til it's over" quite like Curry. He's a supernova, one of the best players of all time. An offensive engine unlike anything we've seen in this sport. The shooting numbers are below his level this season, but he's been tremendous this postseason — 25.9 points while shooting 52.4% from two and 38.0% from three (on nearly 10 attempts per contest) is nothing to sneeze at.

Making Curry work is going to be the first step to remotely slowing him down. Lean on him, grab the jersey, bump him on cuts. He's a world-class athlete in terms of conditioning; it'll behoove you to test his stamina.

But that's peripheral. You do all that stuff so you can accomplish the ultimate goal: Stay attached to him at all costs. 

You can't bank on possessions ending in a Curry travel like that one. All the stuff before that? It needs to look like that. Aaron Nesmith picks him up after he cuts down the lane and grabs him. Nesmith calls for Tatum to switch onto Curry before he even preps to come off the second screen, and Tatum grabs Curry too. There's communication happening above the break — again, all before Curry prepares to come off a screen.

Physicality. Timeliness. Communication. It's all there. Forget the travel for a minute: Curry doesn't begin to attack Tatum until there are five seconds left on the clock. That's the kind of process that can make things tough for the Warriors.

Beyond that, it might be worth shading Curry towards his dominant hand. It sounds wild, but you have to be able to live with something. Curry's the rare righty who, by the percentages, is more likely to pull up when driving right than going all the way.

Winning the paint battle is going to be key in this series. Making Curry drill contested pull-ups is still in his wheelhouse — he's the Greatest Shooter of All Time, duh — but from a process standpoint, preventing him from generating paint touches can help contain the rest of the offense from getting easy looks.

Now let's dig into how the Warriors can slow down the Celtics.

GOLDEN STATE'S LIKELY DEFENSIVE MATCHUPS

Stephen Curry —> Marcus Smart

Klay Thompson —> Jaylen Brown

Andrew Wiggins —> Jayson Tatum

Draymond Green —> Al Horford

Kevon Looney —> Robert Williams III 

Assuming the starters carry over from last round, I'd expect things to be pretty straightforward. Wiggins got the Tatum matchup early, but Thompson was out. Thompson got it in the second matchup, but Wiggins was out. They'll likely handle the stars at full strength.

WHERE I'D DIFFER: DRAYMOND GREEN ON JAYLEN BROWN, KLAY THOMPSON ON AL HORFORD

In the first matchup, the Warriors stashed Green on Smart. It was a way to neutralize his drives, while turning any ball-screen into an automatic switch. As Steve Jones Jr. has pointed out on The Dunker Spot, Smart's drives are important to greasing the wheels of the Boston offense. If he can generate paint touches and force rotations, he'll be able to kick to Brown or Tatum and let them attack scrambling defenses.

You may not be able to do that with both teams at full strength. Green on Smart would likely shift Curry onto Brown, and I wouldn't want to give him that matchup early, considering the success Jaylen's had as a driver this postseason. 

The next best thing may be taking a page from the Dallas series and slotting Green onto Brown. Limit those drives, similar to the game plan against Jalen Brunson, and it may become more difficult for the Celtics to create the advantages they want.

Thompson isn't the sly screen navigator he was at his peak. With his mileage and recent injury history, that's totally understandable. He's strong as heck though, and should be able to make Horford work if necessary.

It helps that Boston hasn't posted Horford that often — he's logged 13 post-ups this postseason, with only 5 coming in the Miami series despite seeing Kyle Lowry, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson spend some time on him.

BASE COVERAGE: DROP (TO LATE SWITCH)

You don't want Boston getting downhill. It wasn't a premier club in this regard during the regular season — the Celtics ranked 13th in drives per game and 22nd in rim rate — but those numbers have perked up during the postseason. In the Miami series specifically, they were able to juice their half-court attack by putting relentless pressure on the rim. Combined with Miami's aggressive help, they were able to generate catch-and-shoot and catch-and-drive opportunities.

It may make sense to go a little more conservative here. The Bucks had some success in drop, and the Warriors' front line is better equipped to deal with late switching than the Bucks were. Heck, we just saw Looney do it against Luka.

PLAYS TO WATCH FOR

It's going to be Pindown City for Boston. The Celtics flow into Chicago action — a pindown that goes into a dribble handoff — as often as any team in the league. I appreciate when they simplify it further — clear a side, have one of the wings curl off a screen and set up a 2-on-1 low on the floor.

Keep an eye on Tatum if he's trailing the play or chilling at the wing while one of his guards brings the ball up the floor. Boston's likely to flow into Wide action, with Tatum coming off a screen in the middle of the floor and running into the catch. It's a simple-but-effective way for him to gain an early advantage as a driver, or for him to set up a ball-screen while his defender recovers.

STOP THE STAR: JAYSON TATUM

Tatum is one of the young superstars in our game. A jumper you can't contest at its apex, a newfound aggressive streak as a driver and budding playmaking chops — there aren't many players in the league that are tougher to deal with. This will be his deepest postseason run to date, and he's balling: 27-7-6 while shooting 50.0% from two and nearly 38% from three on over 8 attempts per game. To carry his usage, put up those numbers and do it efficiently (postseason career-high 58.9% True Shooting) is incredible.

He's nearly the complete package on offense, but there are still things to poke at for now. The drop-to-late-switch ideal is truly the coverage Tatum has to prove he can beat consistently. He can shake loose for pull-up threes if the drop is too deep, or if the screen navigation isn't up to par.

This is a miss, but it won't cut it:

At the very least, you want Looney closer to the level of the screen. If there's a "meh" shooter next to him — Smart or White, in particular — pinching in and taking away airspace would be ideal.

While we're on the scheme front: Mixing in some hedges and traps may be worth it. Tatum's at the point where you can't give him a steady dose of the same looks. He knows how to beat drop, how to mismatch hunt against switches and how to pass out of traps. But if he doesn't know when he'll get those looks, things can get interesting.

Getting Tatum inside the arc, forcing him to work the middle, could get a little tight for him. He shot 36.9% on pull-up or step-back middies this season, and that mark has dropped to 35.9% during the postseason. He still doesn't have a reliable floater, something that's been touched on in this space before.

As far as the tendency plays go, shading him left could be the way to go. He's much more likely to pull up when going that way, and the drives don't hit the same. Not that he can't finish with his left, but you're prone to get some of those awkward righty-floater-while-fading-left shots from him.

Thoughts/Questions for The Others

- Poole might be the X-factor in this series. Aside from Curry, he's the only other Warrior trusted to create for himself and others. His downhill juice will be needed. But the Celtics will target him when they get into mismatch-hunting mode. He'll have to hold up. 

- If Poole can't hold up defensively, I wonder where the Warriors go late in games. Do they downsize with a healthy Payton and use him as a cutter and screener? Do they size up with Looney and close with their usual starters? An in-between option like Otto Porter Jr.? There are pros and cons to all of them.

- Speaking of Looney, I hope he's prepared to make some short-roll reads. If Boston plays more aggressively against those pet off-ball actions, there will be pockets for Looney to make reads. He'll have to make them in a timely manner, because windows will close quickly against this group.

- I touched on it a little earlier, but I do wonder if we see the Celtics involve Horford more offensively. The total of 13 post-ups is a wildly low number, especially when you consider how effective they've been (1.3 PPP). Let him mash from time to time.

- Smart will get the bulk of the Curry assignment, but White will get his chance too. His screen navigation has been insane all postseason long. He'll just need to find enough usage as a screener on the other end to warrant a large minute load.

- I wonder if there's more usage for Pritchard in this series. After logging 25 minutes in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he played 12 minutes the rest of the series. If the Warriors are going to keep Moses Moody in the rotation, there may be room to match minutes on that front. Pritchard's ability to bomb away from three could be a nice boost, especially if the Warriors sprinkle in zone looks.

- Very quietly, Grant Williams has seen a rapid decrease in three-point volume since the Milwaukee series. He went 2-of-10 from deep over the last four games of the East Finals. He'll need to be a linchpin of Boston's small-ball unit when the team goes to it, especially if the other Williams can't hold up — production or health-wise.

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