These teams are balanced. The Celtics finished the regular season first leaguewide in defensive efficiency. The Warriors finished second. And yet each team possesses explosive offensive firepower, with Jason Tatum leading the way for Boston and Stephen Curry pacing Golden State.
The Warriors and Celtics split their two regular-season matchups, making it difficult to draw definitive conclusions. On Dec. 17 in Boston, the Warriors defeated the Celtics 111-107thigh Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole, Al Horford and Grant Williams did not play that night. On March 16 in San Francisco, the Celtics beat the Warriors 110-88 in a game the Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins missed.
So how will the finals play out?
To answer that question, The Athletic has turned to three experts: a scout, a coach and a team executive. We granted each of them anonymity because their respective teams did not give them permission to comment publicly on this series.
(Editor’s note: Their assessments have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
Scout’s outlook: “I’m picking Boston. They had a very rough road, a very competitive road to get here: Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami, all very good teams, even the Nets. The Nets could’ve easily won a couple of games or even three games in that series. So all that stuff about (the Celtics’) lack of experience and not having been to the finals — I wouldn’t throw it out the window, but they won two Game 7s, and one of those on the other guys’ court. So they certainly have stood up to the moment.
“Size will be an issue in the Celtics’ favor. Kevin Looney was exceptional in the prior series for the Warriors and at times was the best player for them. I think Boston can certainly neutralize that, whether it’s Al Horford or Robert Williams III or even Grant Williams or even Daniel Theis. So I think the Celtics’ size is going to be a problem for the Warriors.
“I don’t think Klay Thompson is quite back yet. I would say he’s shown more than flashes (of his old self, pre-injuries), but he is not the Klay Thompson of three years ago. I just think there’s something (missing), whether it’s athleticism or he’s getting a little older. I mean, he’s still a very good player. In terms of his superstardom, it’s a little less. I think that’s a factor.
“Curry, obviously, is a fantastic player. On the other hand, the other team’s got the Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart.
“Injuries will play a factor. I think Boston’s bench is better. Otto Porter Jr.‘s been in and out for the Warriors. Gary Payton II‘s supposed to come back, but he hasn’t played in a while. How effective will he be? …
“Golden State’s got the home-court advantage, so you’ve got to give them that. That is an edge, especially when you get to Game 7. But in its prior series, Boston won three games in Miami. I just think the Celtics have got confidence. Their stars have shown they rise to the occasion.
“Jordan Poole? We’ll see. Is he going to rise to the occasion at this moment? I’m not totally convinced. …
“I think it should be a very good series. I thought Phoenix was going to get there. I think the best team came out of the East and probably the second-best team came out of the West. …
“Size will be a big factor. Boston, starting with Williams and Horford, it’s like the Celtics are massive. I just don’t think Looney’s going to have the same kind of impact against those guys. against Dallas … he could almost be dominant. But Boston is a whole different story. …
“Ever since January and they got it together, the Celtics have probably been the best team in the league. To win two Game 7s against really good teams, that’s massive confidence-wise. I didn’t even mention Jayson Tatum. If you compare the two stars from each team — Tatum and Curry, (Jaylen) Brown and Thompson — I think I almost give the edge to Boston because I don’t think Thompson is quite back there yet.
“I should mention Andrew Wiggins. He could be an X-factor. He’s been a real plus, and the Warriors need him to be really good. I don’t think they have a chance unless he’s really, really good. They just don’t have enough. I mean, they can’t really count on Poole. They’re not going to count on Looney. Thompson’s going to give them a lot. But they need Andrew Wiggins to be major, and I don’t think they have a shot unless he does perform at a very, very high level.
“I just think Boston’s got more depth, more size and has risen to the moment, and they’re going to continue to do that.”
Coach’s outlook: “I think Boston’s going to find a way, I really do. They were my pick from the beginning.
“I still think that Golden State is a machine. They’re just locked into each other. And they’re so unselfish. And they know their offense so well. Everybody that plays buys into the offense. And they generate open shots and make tough shots. Their offense is dynamic. The way they give themselves up and cut and move without the basketball, it’s fun to watch.
“Boston’s defense is going to be good enough to be able to limit the easy buckets that Golden State generates. That’s what I’m considering. That’s the key to me. I think Boston will be able to take those points off the scoreboard. So when you say, ‘Curry and Thompson get eight points on back cuts a game. They get the pin-in. They get the lob dunk.’ OK, they do get all that. But they get it on inferior defensive teams. And my rationale for picking Boston is they’re going to be more disciplined than to allow that to happen.
“It’s all predicated on health. Is Robert Williams playing? What’s Marcus Smart’s ankle like? I think everybody has issues, right? Is Gary Payton II coming back? Does that help (Golden State)? Gary Payton coming back takes minutes away from who?
“Boston can play big with Robert Williams, maybe Horford. They can play small with Grant Williams. They can switch a lot. They’re physical. What would be interesting to me is how the officials call the series. Do they allow Boston to be physical and slow down Golden State with their bodies holding, hitting, bumping, impeding the progress? Or do they say, ‘We’re not allowing that. We’re calling this series a certain way?’ Not game to game, but basically the entire series — how are they going to officiate the series? You used to hear the term ‘freedom of movement.’ That, for Steph Curry, is so important. Will Marcus Smart and (the Celtics’) defenders on the perimeter be holding and impeding Curry’s progress? …
“It depends (a) how healthy both teams are and (b) how the officials are calling the series. A lot of stuff was going on in the Eastern Conference finals, all the charges and the flops. And those same officials are going to be officiating the finals. You’ll see Scott Foster and James Capers, all the same guys. But you’ve got to navigate through all the flops and the phony bullshit. Some of them are fouls. But the good players — the smart players — put you in a box a little bit and say, ‘I’m going to make you blow your whistle because I’m falling.’ But that series was about charges, flopping and putting bodies on each other. I don’t know what happens when you start doing that in Golden State, against Golden State.
“If you allow Golden State to play with freedom of movement, if you allow them to play their offensive game, there’s nobody that can beat them. If you say, ‘Marcus Smart, you’re going to be allowed to put your body on a guy or get up into Klay Thompson and disrupt him with your body and reach and poke the ball two or three times a game,’ then we ‘re playing Boston Celtics-style basketball. … Boston’s beating every team that tries to play with physicality. What’s going to prevail: the physicality of Boston or the shooting of Golden State?”
Executive’s outlook: “(The Celtics) fucked around the whole time (in their run to the finals). Like, with the injuries that were in the East, Boston is the best team. They lose Game 5 at home to Milwaukee (in the second round), which you can’t do. They lose Game 6 at home to a damaged Miami team (in the East finals). But their talent level (is elite) — Tatum and Brown … and their depth one through seven, which is basically all (Celtics coach Ime Udoka) is playing. They’ve done a great job in terms of shortening the bench, and they were the best seven guys in the East. The best team won. Did they mess around more than you would hope they would? Probably. But they’re the best team at this point with what everyone else was facing with injuries. … They’ve been the best team in the East for four months now.
“(But) the Warriors have home-court advantage, which I think will be a big deal. Obviously, the crowd is different than it was at Oracle (Arena), but it’s still very, very good. And they seem to hit their stride defensively almost more than offensively in these playoffs. And then you add in Steph, Klay — who’s not quite the same Klay, but he’s more than enough. And then they’ll put (Wiggins) on Tatum, I imagine. My big question is, will they start Klay on Brown, or will they have Draymond (Green) on one of the two big guys and move Wiggins to the other one? My guess is that they’ll start Klay on Brown and let Draymond do his rover-safety-the-best-in-basketball-that-he-is thing. But I just think with their ability to create shots the way they do is going to stress the Celtics defense in a way they haven’t been (stressed). And Rob Williams, I think, gets mitigated a little bit. The Warriors don’t rely on a bunch of stuff at the rim, or the stuff they get off the rim is off of distraction, essentially, around their split (screen) games and their transition 3s. I just think it’ll be too much. I just think the Warriors are better. I think it’s close. But if Tatum and Brown raise one more level, this (prediction) is gonna look stupid. But yeah, I’m gonna tell you Warriors in seven.”
“I think Boston, for the league, is a better defensive team overall. But I’m not sure they have the weaponry to guard Golden State. I think we’ll find out. I think in this series, Golden State’s defense will be a little bit better.
“Boston will attack (Poole on defense) the minute he gets on the floor. I actually don’t think Dallas attacked him enough. Part of that is just how Luka (Dončić) plays. But (the Warriors) have to go out of their way to protect him, and it’s why as that series went on, his minutes went down, quite frankly. He is a bull’s-eye. He is an absolute target.”
“The (Celtics) showed (resilience), where (after) every game they lost, the next night (they responded). I think Tatum’s averaging 32 a night (after a loss). It’s not, ‘Yeah, they have to play out of their minds to win,’ but if they play their best basketball for seven games, Boston is going to be hard to beat. Smart is so good, but what makes him great — that chip on that shoulder and his fearlessness — is what can lead to those five straight (ill-advised) shots (at the end of Game 7 against Miami), or those halves where Tatum and Brown shoot seven times total. If she reins it in just a little bit and they play through Brown and Tatum at a higher level, and the Warriors can’t guard them both to the level they think they can, that’ll be the difference-maker. Obviously, whatever team makes more shots certainly plays in here. But no, I think mostly it’s about Tatum and Brown raising to the level of (showing) that they’re two of the top-10 players in the league and they play like it for the majority of seven games. That will be the biggest difference if they were to win.”
“I don’t think (the Warriors’ better NBA Finals experience will be a big factor). (The Celtics) played in multiple Eastern Conference finals. They obviously won in a tough place to play on the road in Game 7; they beat the Bucks in Game 7. They’ve had their lumps in conference finals, (but) I don’t think that comes into play here. Time will tell, but these guys are battle-tested (despite) not being in the finals (before now).”
Scout’s pick: Boston in six
Coach’s pick: Boston in six
Executive’s pick: Warriors in seven
Majority pick: Boston
(Top photo of Stephen Curry and Jayson Tatum: Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)