- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
It almost seems strange that this potentially epic NBA Finals matchup hasn’t happened already.
This is the third iteration of the Golden State Warriors to reach the league’s apex in the past decade. It’s a redemption season for every level of the organization: for Steve Kerr and a coaching staff who stuck to the principles of their motion-based offense and the singular star from whom the whole system emanates; for the Stephen Curry-Draymond Green-Klay Thompson core that really never stopped winning; and for an ownership group and front office that bet on Andrew Wiggins and dared try threading the needle — amid mockery — of winning today while building for tomorrow.
The hints were there: Golden State’s run through the last two rounds in the 2019 Western Conference playoffs after Kevin Durant’s calf injury, and then their 15-5 sprint to finish last season — when they mothballed anything and anyone that did not mesh with the signature Curry-Green style, and looked again like the Warriors. But to return here three years, one free agency departure, and two catastrophic injuries later? That’s special.
The Boston Celtics have been trudging to this chance for a half-decade, and in many ways were built with the Warriors in mind: a hellacious, switching defense centered around big two-way wings who could fly and cut and run and bang with the vaunted Death Lineup and its successors. There is no one answer for Curry, but Marcus Smart might be the best available. Boston never traded Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum for any prime-aged superstars — the list of candidates was long — and what appeared to be precious stubbornness looks prescient now. Brown and Tatum are young, healthy, and under contract for years.
The big-name guys Danny Ainge did acquire at the cost of cap space and draft equity — Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Al Horford — are gone save for Horford, the only one of the four that really produced as expected in the playoffs. But the other three (when healthy) had some strong regular-seasons — Irving and Walker made three combined All-Star teams as Celtics — helping navigate the first 82 and playing some role in setting the younger Celtics up for valuable deep playoff experience.
Perhaps that came in handy in steeling them now for tests like a season-on-the-brink road Game 6 at the Milwaukee Bucks, and a nail-biting Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals.
Reacquiring Horford — and then trading for Derrick White at the deadline — evinced an internal optimism that should have put the rest of the league on notice. Dealing a first-round pick to exchange Walker and Horford was a meaningful sacrifice of the future to win today. Boston believed its 36-36 campaign last season was fluky — the product of injuries, faulty chemistry, and coronavirus-related absences.
Boston was 32-25 when it traded even more draft equity for White; the Celtics were surging, but not yet an obvious East favorite. They knew White brought the elusiveness and selflessness they needed. The real bet was that White — and the sloughing away of Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson — could be the last player needed for a title team. It was bold, but not if the Celtics were confident in what they had.
Boston has been the league’s best team for four months and about 55 games now. Statistically, no one even comes close. The Celtics boast the best postseason scoring margin, and the stingiest postseason defense among teams who advanced past the second round. They swept Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, survived the Giannis Antetokounmpo battering ram, and won three road games against a Miami Heat team that gives no quarter.
Boston is the only team in the Kerr era with a winning record against Golden State. The Celtics should be favorites. Some models — including ESPN’s Basketball Power Index — peg them as such. Oddsmakers disagree.
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