From a 1-2 deficit, a desperate shortage of answers at the offensive end and a worrying lack of depth, the Golden State Warriors have flipped the 2022 NBA Finals on its head. After a pair of extremely impressive victories in Boston and San Francisco, the Warriors return to Boston with a chance to secure an NBA titles. As we look ahead to this vital Game 6, a few thoughts on what could be in store.
In the span of just two games, the Boston Celtics have gone from overwhelming favorites to capture their first title in nearly a decade and a half (and an NBA record 18th overall for the franchise) to a team that lacks depth and seems to be in the midst of running out of gas. Conversely, in that same span, the Warriors have morphed from a offensively shorthanded team that would only reluctantly as far as Steph Curry could drag them, to the tough, intelligent, versatile and deep battled-tested champions that we’ve all given them credit for being, with Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson, Draymond, Gary Payton II and Kevon Looney all stepping up with excellent performances at both ends of the floor.
Friday night, back in Boston, the two sides square off in an all-important Game 6. The Celtics will be battling to extend their season to a decisive Game 7 back in San Francisco. Victory for the Warriors, meanwhile, means a fourth title in the past eight years. Are there still twists and turns left in this plot? Absolutely! When all is said and done on Thursday, where will things stand? So glad you asked!
At the end of the night, at long last, Stephen Curry will be a Finals MVP.
Let’s start here: I cannot fathom holding the opinion that Stephen Curry’s legacy will somehow not be secure until he wins an NBA Finals MVP.
Even in the absence of that one honor – and even without this latest championship, of which he’s on the precipice – Steph is, unequivocally, not only one of the tiny handful of greatest point guards ever to play in the NBA, but also one of its most spectacular, intelligent, technically gifted, revolutionary and, simply, best players of all time.
All of that being said, should the Warriors secure victory in Boston on Friday night (or, for that matter, in Game & in San Francisco, though that’s not what we’re talking about here), Steph – who even after his dud of a Game 5 performance (just 16 points, on 7-of-22 overall, and 0-of-9 on 3-pointers), is averaging 30.6 points (on 46.6% shooting and 41.7% from 3-point range), 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and two steals per game in these Finals – will, on his eighth trip to the NBA Finals and fourth championships, get his hands on the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award.
And there, fittingly beneath the 11 championship banners that the iconic Celtics big man won in his 13-year career, Steph will emphatically answer some critics who, frankly, do not even deserve a response.
The triumphant return of ‘Game 6 Klay’ is upon us.
People – smart people – will tell you that betting with your heart is a fool’s errand. These people are not incorrect. On occasion, however, moments arise in which the heart must willfully be allowed to overpower the head, because rooting for the alternative is simply that unpalatable.
For the neutral – and, frankly, humanity in general – there’s not a more likeable player from a personality standpoint than Klay Thompson. Klay’s combination of aloof, hilarious philosophical, empathetic, relentlessly competitive and delightfully goofy is one that we rarely encounter in sports, let alone in a superstar.
When I did a similar exercise prior to Game 4, I laid out a variety of very valid reasons why Klay would likely not recapture his vintage form in this series, if ever:
‘…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.’
Two games and a monumental momentum shift later, while I don’t think those words are, strictly speaking, incorrect, I’m planning to bury them in the recesses of my mind, and allow hope (and, to be fair, precedent – though from some years past) that we’ve got at least one more rendezvous left with the most lovable stone cold postseason assassin in the NBA: ‘Game 6 Klay‘.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will combine for 50+ shot attempts.
In the Celtics four-game, opening round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, their top two offensive weapons, Jason Tatum and Jalen Brown combined for an average of 37.5 shots per game. In the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks, they combined for 37.9. That number was skewed by back-to-back 48’s in the Celtics’ Game 5 loss and Game 6 win. In the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, that number plummeted to 34 per game. Interestingly, though the Celtics were pushed to the limit against the Heat, that series is the one in which most observers would say that the Celtics actually played their best basketball.
Of course, the Celtics’ success is built on an elite defense and Tatum and Brown producing prolifically. That ‘best’ version of this team is also predicated on consistent ball movement and player movement, which creates easy baskets and decentralizes the offensive responsibility. That development is one that Ime Udoka implemented (or, at the very least, that Tatum and Brown fully bought into) when the Celtics’ head coach called out his team around the midway point of the season, demanding more toughness and more cohesion from his team. Brown and Tatum, while still very much the top two options on offense made a concerted effort to get their teammates involved and became more willing playmakers.
However, as this series has gone on and each (as well as their supporting cast) has intermittently struggled, we’ve seen the duo put up more and more shots. After not attempting more than 39 shots in a game in the series against the Heat, Tatum and Brown have done so three times in five games in this series, with tallies of 38 and 36 times in the others.
Obviously, the Celtics can win with these two taking an even more outsized role in the offense, but that’s clearly not when this team is at its best. A do-or-die Game 6, in front of a frenzied home crowd is unlikely to bring about a reversal.
Kevon Looney will be the game’s most effective big man.
It’s entirely possible that when the Golden State Warriors selected Kevon Looney the 30th pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, they thought they were getting a future star. Certainly when the UCLA Bruins recruited the 2014 McDonald’s High School All American the year before, they were expecting a star. In his one season with UCLA, Looney averaged 11.6 points and 9.2 rebounds and two ‘stocks’ (steals plus blocks) per game – certainly solid, and maybe hinting at stardom. However, the fact that Looney was neither an ultra explosive athlete nor an adept outside shooter, in an NBA quickly moving away from traditional big men, his career was almost certainly going to unfold in supporting role. The relentlessness, toughness, humility and perseverance he’s brought to the singular task of helping the Warriors win games – and win games in the playoffs – turned the match into one made in hoops heaven.
This postseason, in a way that we’ve never seen before, Looney has contributed not only through sacrifice, but he’s also conjured genuinely fantastic performances. In the Game 6 win against the Memphis Grizzlies that punched the Warriors’ ticket to the Western Conference Finals, Looney exploded with 22 rebounds and five assists. Against the Dallas Mavericks, he had games of 21 points and 12 rebounds, 9 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists, and 10 points, 18 rebounds and 4 assists – al in victories. And now, in the Finals against the Celtics, the effect of his time on the floor has been a proxy for the Warriors’ fortunes. In Game 2, a 19-point win for the Warriors, he had 12 points, 7 rebounds and three steals, and was a +24 in 21 minutes. In Game 4, with the Warriors facing disaster, he grabbed 11 rebounds and was a +21 in 28 minutes of action.
There’s a risk that, perhaps, as folks join the Kevon Looney Appreciation Society, this becomes the latest case of a solid contributor becoming a tad overrated. Given what this guy shows us, game in and game out year in, and the esteem in which he’s clearly held by superstar teammates, that probably wouldn’t be the worst thing.