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Boston Celtics

The 2022 NBA Finals is, in a way, a battle of the old guard vs the new. It’s not totally fair to label the Golden State Warriors “old,” because their superstar core is obviously still playing at a high level. But they’ve been an elite team in the NBA since the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum was in diapers roaming the halls of Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis.

Tatum hammered that context home when he was asked about the Warriors during his pre-NBA Finals media availability on Wednesday. Tatum has been watching Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and others since he was, basically, a kid. He also shared a connection with former Warriors big man David Lee, who played for Golden State from 2011-15.

“I was still in high school [when the Warriors won the NBA Finals in 2015],” Tatum said. “I had just finished my junior year, and David Lee was on that team. David Lee is from St. Louis, we went to the same high school, so I’ve been watching them for a very long time.”

To be fair, this could also be looked at as Tatum being so young. He’s still just 23 years old, which would be like a little boy in “superstar winning his first championship” years. But Curry and the Warriors likely won’t have many more cracks at the title, which should put more pressure on them than the Celtics to win this series.

The Warriors have dealt with major injuries to their stars in recent years, particularly Thompson, and Curry missed time earlier in the 2021-22 season. But now that their core is back together and at full strength, it’s no surprise that they’re once again playing for a championship. The 33-year-old Curry has been vintage in the 2022 playoffs, with 25.9 points and 3.8 three-pointers per game.

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But Tatum has been slightly more productive, with 27.0 points per game. The Curry-Tatum duel will be easily the No. 1 thing to watch in the series.

If Tatum can play his best basketball consistently – and the Celtics can keep Curry in check defensively – then the upstart Boston will have a good chance to vanquish the incumbent Golden State.

Did I mention the Warriors are old?

PHOTOS: Celtics celebrate winning Eastern Conference Finals after Game 7

Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. You can also email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.

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NBA Finals X-Factors: Celtics and Warriors players to watch

  • The 2022 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors will be a star-studded affair. This series features to of the best duos in the league in Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

    All four of those players will be major factors – one way or the other – in determining the outcome of this series. But they’re hardly the only ones on the court. Both of these teams have depth both in their starting lineups and off the bench, as is expected from teams that make it to this point of the season.

    Who from outside of that top tier will make their presence felt most in this series? Are there any other intangibles that could saw things one way or the other? Let’s look at some X-Factors for the 2022 NBA Finals.

  • Marcus Smart

    May 21, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) reacts after a play against the Miami Heat in the third quarter during game three of the 2022 eastern conference finals at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    May 21, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) reacts after a play against the Miami Heat in the third quarter during game three of the 2022 eastern conference finals at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    I know there’s a lot of Celtics fans that probably don’t want to hear this – and somewhere out there Adam Jones is probably trying to delete this take from the station’s website – but Marcus Smart has a real chance to be the pivotal player in this series. That’s not to say he’ll be the best player or the highest scoring player or anything like that, but his skills on the defensive end of the floor – and whether or not he’s healthy enough to play up to his potential defensively – will go a long way in determining what kind of series this is.

    Of course, this is tied into Curry’s standing in the series. If he gets hot, it becomes nearly impossible to stop Golden State. That’s where Smart comes in.

    Curry is a career 47.3 percent field goal shooter. That number is impressive enough on its own for a point guard, and even more eye-popping when you consider how often he shoots from outside. But when he faces Marcus Smart, he becomes a whole new player. But going back to the 2017-2018 season, with Smart on him as a primary defender, Curry’s shooting percentage drops to 33.3 percent. He goes from making almost half his shots to exactly a third.

    For most of this playoff run, the Celtics’ core defensive strategy has been to erase the opponent’s top offensive option, and force them to turn to secondary scoring. If they can do that to Steph Curry with a single defender, it opens them up to get more creative against the Warriors’ other shooters.

    However there is an unknown variable here, and that’s Marcus Smart’s health. “My whole right side is a little banged up on my leg,” Smart said after Game 7. “I’ve got the quad injury, I’ve got the foot injury, and then I have the ankle injury.” Smart indicated he’s been playing at “65-70 percent” despite looking strong in Game 7.

    While the exact severity of Smart’s injuries are unknown, it probably didn’t help that the Celtics played every other day between May 7 and May 29. With three days off before the Finals, how much did Smart’s condition improve? If he’s fully healthy, his defensive ability becomes a fulcrum of the series. If not, the Celtics may need to seriously compensate when the Warriors have the ball.

  • Warriors’ secondary scoring

    SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 26: Jordan Poole #3 and Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Golden State Warriors react to a play during the second quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Five of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals at Chase Center on May 26, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

    SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – MAY 26: Jordan Poole #3 and Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Golden State Warriors react to a play during the second quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Five of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals at Chase Center on May 26, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

    Let’s say the Celtics do shut down Curry, who will step up for the Warriors? Thompson remains an obvious candidate, but after missing the last two years with a torn ACL and Achilles, he hasn’t been the same player. A career 45.9 percent shooter from the field at 41.9 percent from three prior to the injuries, he’s saw those numbers dip to 42.9 percent and 38.5 percent respectively this season.

    However, Golden State has added more secondary scoring since the departure of Kevin Durant. Former first overall pick Andrew Wiggins was acquired by the Warriors during the 2019-2020 season, and it a big part of what Golden State does offensively. He provides another weapon from the perimeter shooting 39.3 percent from three, and he can capitalize if and when teams pay too much attention to Thompson and Curry.

    The Warriors can also create offense with their second unit. Jordan Poole began the year as a starter, but has transitioned to a bench role during the playoffs. He had a breakout season in his third year in the NBA, and finished third on the team averaging 18.5 points per game.  He was a handful for the Celtics back in March, scoring 29 points on 10-of-20 shooting and going 6-of-13 from deep. Much of that came without Curry in the game, meaning Poole saw increased defensive pressure.

    Jonathan Kuminga and Otto Porter Jr. can offer also offense from the bench, as well as veteran Andre Igoudala. Porter and Igoudala have missed time with injuries during the playoffs, but have started practicing again and could be available for this series.

    While the Celtics have for the most part had success defending star players in these playoffs, they’ve let secondary scorers light up the box score at times. Bruce Brown gave them trouble in the Nets series, Bobby Portis gave them fits at times against Milwaukee (although they dodged the real danger in Khris Middleton), and even against the Heat Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Victor Oladipo gave them issues all in different games. The Celtics were able to overcome those performances to this point, but Golden State’s depth is on another level. If the Warriors can flex it, it could force the Celtics to adjust their overall defensive strategy.

  • Coaching matchup

    MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 19: Head coach Ime Udoka of the Boston Celtics looks on during the second quarter against the Miami Heat in Game Two of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals at FTX Arena on May 19, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

    MIAMI, FLORIDA – MAY 19: Head coach Ime Udoka of the Boston Celtics looks on during the second quarter against the Miami Heat in Game Two of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals at FTX Arena on May 19, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

    Coaching is often undersold in the NBA, but this matchup is an interesting one. On one side there’s Steve Kerr, coaching in sixth NBA Finals. On the other side is Ime Udoka, who has been to this point as an assistant (with the Spurs in 2014) but is in his first year as a head coach. So far, lopsided experience hasn’t been a problem for Udoka. He bested nine-year veteran and two-time Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer in the second round, then went toe-to-toe in a hard fought series against 14-year vet and also two-time Coach of the Year Erik Spoelstra.

    For Kerr this series is a chance to knock off the team that has given him more trouble than any other, and do so on the biggest stage. Since Kerr took over as the head coach in Golden State in 2014, the Celtics are the only team with a winning record against the Warriors going 9-7 head-to-head in that span.

    Meanwhile, Udoka will be tasks with continuing to push the right buttons as he has throughout the second half of this season and the playoff run. One of the first adjustments he’ll have to make regards the rotation. The Celtics used a primarily seven-man rotation against the Heat after going deeper into their bench earlier in the playoffs. Will he choose to stay selective against a deeper Warriors team, or find spots to use players like Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis, who may be more effective against this Golden State team than they were against Miami.

    One other coaching point – in the last series against Miami, the Celtics struggled at times coming out of Heat timeouts especially at TD Garden. In their losses in Games 3 and 6, it seemed like every time they were about to make a run at the lead in the second half, Spoelstra would call for a well-timed stoppage, and after the break the Heat would regain control of the game.

    Whether that was the Heat handling those pauses in the action well, or the Celtics handling them poorly is hard to tell, and it’s likely a combination of both. But improving in that area ties closely to coaching, so it’s something to keep an eye on in regards to Udoka as the series gets underway.

NEXT… Brad Stevens on Toucher and Rich: Don’t Discount the Celtics’ Playoff Experience