Will the Boston Celtics rack up two more wins and secure an NBA-record 18th championship? Or will the Warriors overturn a 2-1 deficit and mounting concerns to capture their fourth title of the past decade? It’s all going to come down to the answers to a few key questions.
At the time of writing, the Boston Celtics, who are back in the NBA Finals for the first time in over a decade, hold a 2-1 advantage (and Game 4 at home) against the NBA’s defining team of the past decade, the three-time champion and six-time Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors.
In the run up to Game 4, it’s tough not to like the Celtics’ chances. They’ve both absorbed some solid punches from the Warriors and overcome some adversity of their own. Needless to say, however, this series is far from over. There are still twists and turns left in this plot, and questions that each side must answer if they are to be crowned champions:
What’s up with Steph’s ankle?
This one is as simple as simple gets.
There’s not a longtime NBA fan among who can hear the words ‘Steph Curry’ and ‘ankle’ and not flash back a decade, when multiple, persistent ankle injuries cost Curry two thirds of the 2011-12 season, nagged him in the previous and following campaigns, and threatened to derail his career before it could truly hit its stride.
Obviously, in hindsight, Steph overcame those specific injuries and has since put together one of the great decade-long runs in the history of the sport – during which he’s won a pair of league MVP awards and the Warriors have won three titles – and is now a legend of the game. Those questions were ‘macro’. What we’re dealing with here is more ‘micro’.
Right now more than ever, as goes Steph Curry, so go the Golden State Warriors. Even if this injury is not serious in the long term (and I can’t tell you how I’m hoping it’s not), it’s rendered Curry ‘questionable’ for Game 4 and is likely to at least hinder him a bit over the next week – which is about all that’s left of the NBA season.
Curry is, without question, one of the most remarkable players in the history of the game. He is a basketball genius of the very highest order. HOWEVER, for all of his brilliance, not even he’s managed to devise a method for mitigating all of the effects of an ankle injury. Of course, he’ll still almost certainly be excellent. The problem is that, even with Curry firing on all cylinders (31.3 pointer and six made 3-pointers per game in this series) the Warriors very much have their hands full.
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Even with a healthy Steph, the Warriors need more from Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole – will they get it?
I’ll level with you: I have concerns here.
Over the course of a long season, against all manner of opposition – or even in other playoff series against less dominant defensive teams (so, just about any other team), the Klay-Poole-Wiggins trio rounds out one of the great perimeter rotations in today’s NBA, but is more than capable of carrying a team to victory with Steph at less than 100%.
However, against these Celtics, on this stage, there’s cause for concern with each:
- Three games into this series, Klay has made 17 of 50 shots and just nine of 28 3-pointers. Far be it from me to count out one of the great big game shooters in NBA playoff history, but there’s not a ton of reasons to expect vintage ‘Game 6 Klay‘ to parachute into these Finals. Thompson’s CV is unimpeachable. He is a three-time champion and, along with Curry and Draymond Green, a foundational piece of this Warriors dynasty. However, it’s only been a few months since he returned to live action after missing more than two years with a torn Achilles tendon and a torn ACL. The road back from ONE of those injuries is rarely an easy one. Players who suffer, again, just one of these injuries (never mind both in succession!) do not immediately bounce back to peak form. Add to this the fact that Klay is now 32 – though still very good, he may simply never recapture his PEAK form.
- Jordan Poole, meanwhile, is running into a wall that’s felled many a young NBA star at the end of a breakout regular season campaign and fantastic (if inconsistent in the latter stages) playoff run. That the ascendant third-year star has struggled to put up big numbers against the best defense he’s faced all year (which is now keyed on just one opponent) isn’t a huge shock. That being said, if Steph is at all hindered, if Poole can’t provide better than 40% shooting, 33% on 3-pointers, 12 points per game and fewer assists (8 through three games) than turnovers (10), the Warriors are in trouble.
- Finally, we have Andrew Wiggins, whose move to the Warriors allowed him to discover and settle into his ideal role: elite perimeter defender, slasher, and spot up shooter. To suddenly ask him to step into the primary scorer/offensive creator role in which he was miscast for years in Minnesota, in the NBA Finals, against an elite defense, is unlikely to yield great results.
Can the Celtics really finally win an NBA Finals with Jayson Tatum making barely a third of his shots?
Under normal circumstances, you’d assume that not only would this eventually catch up with the Celtics, but that it would have already bitten them. That this team has so smoothly weathered Tatum’s struggles from the floor is a testament to the abilities of Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford to pick up the offensive slack, Robert Williams’ monumental impact on defense and head coach Ime Udoka’s implementation of a style that is not overly reliant on any one star.
It must also be said that Tatum, despite those struggles, has still offered considerable value, making 9-of-18 3-pointers in Games 2 and 3, handing out 13 assists in Game 1 (and more than eight per game through three), and scoring eight big fourth quarter points in Game 3.
So, if for some reason, Tatum cannot get into gear in the coming games, can the Celtics keep this up? It would appear so.
And, again, if Steph is at less than 100%, it may not even matter.
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Draymond Green’s aggressive, ‘on the edge’ appears to have gone off the rails – how quickly can he rein it back in?
At his best, Draymond Green is the ultimate ‘love him if he’s on your team, hate him on the opposition’ player. He’s an agitator, an instigator, a bully and a troll. He is also one of the NBA’s most intelligent players and one of the premier defenders of his era.
However, for as intelligent as Draymond is, the spark that elevates his game it to its peak is emotion. And, of course, the risk inherent with operating on emotion is that sometimes emotions can get away from you or get the best of you. The problem with employing a style like Draymond’s is that, when things aren’t going well those tactics don’t win the same way
In these Finals, Draymond has looked far less a master practitioner of mind games than a liability (just 5 points per game on 5-of-19 shooting, just one game each of more than five rebounds and five assists, six total blocks+steals, and a -7 in 108 minutes on the floor) constantly teetering on the precipice of an ejection (even if it will basically never come).
For as much as Steph Curry is the engine that keeps the Warriors running, Draymond is their talisman, their beating heart. The good news is that the emotions that have allow him to so adeptly assume this role have gotten the better of him in the past, and he has always righted the ship. The issue here, of course, is that Dray needs to not only regain a handle on his emotions but also rediscover something resembling the best version of himself as a player. These are things he can do,. That he’s got virtually no time to do both is at least a bit concerning.
Will Robert Williams’ knee allow him to consistently be the defensive force he was in Game 3?
With all due respect to the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, the most impactful defender on the Celtics is fourth-year center Robert Williams. Whether or not you agree with that statement, if you’ve watched the NBA closely this season, you won’t find it outlandish.
This postseason, Williams’ impact has been muted by chronic knee soreness that has made him a regular on the Celtics’ injury report and cost him games in every series preceding this one. If the Celtics have taught us anything this postseason, it’s the perils of drawing conclusions and extrapolating from the most recent game. However, like his team, Williams invites you to take that risk. His Game 3, while solid statistically (10 rebounds, three steals and four blocked shots to which he also added eight points on four or five shooting in just 26 minutes during which time the Celtics outscored the Warriors by 21 points), was one of the most impactful performances at the defensive end by a front court player since… I’ve heard the phrase ‘evolutionary Draymond Green’ invoked. That’s astronomically high praise. And not unwarranted.
It’s entirely possible the knee that’s plagued Williams all postseason flares up once again. But I can’t see what I saw in Game 3 and suggest in good faith that the guy who put on that show will be ineffectual just a couple of days later.