WORDS by Miguel Caramoan
If I told you that a team with a 23-24 record back in January would make the NBA Finals, it would be understandable to call me fraudulent. It was looking like a mediocre season for the Boston Celtics once again, which had doubters wanting a roster shake-up. But not until they went on a remarkable run, encapsulated by Jaylen Brown’s tweet.
Since that tweet, the C’s went on to have the best record from that point on, regular season-wise (24-6), and finished with the number one ranked defense (106.4 defensive rating).
This success also translated in the playoffs as they went on to beat quality teams like the Brooklyn Nets in four and survived seven grueling games against the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks and top-seed Miami Heat. Definitely, a nice prep up for what’s ahead—a battle-tested Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Going to the series, there is a valid argument to make that the Celtics had better talent, or maybe for fairness, they had the personnel to stifle the beautiful game of the Warriors (being the switchiest team in the league). And this hypothesis seemed true in the first three games of the Finals.
Drive-and-kick was the name of the game for Boston, as it became a key in breaking Golden State’s defense. In their stellar 40-16 run in the fourth quarter of Game 1, it was on full display that helped them to generate good looks, which turned a 12-point deficit into a 12-point win on the road.
The evolution of Jayson Tatum’s playmaking ability has been chronicled throughout the season and in the playoffs. It certainly was the next step towards superstardom, and in his very first NBA Finals game, he had 13 assists—a career-high for a fact. In this three-game span, he also averaged 8.3 assists on a 34.2 assist percentage.
Let’s now talk about the other half of the Jays, Jaylen Brown. With defense keeping a keen eye on Tatum every possession, Brown’s scoring ability enabled the Celtics to have another guy to lean on offensively. Brown’s length and wide frame made it tough for the Warriors’ smaller wings/guards to defend him, especially when he is decisive going downhill.
Excluding the third-quarter avalanches of the Warriors, Boston pretty much dominated by outscoring the opposition 261-209 from Games 1 to 3. It felt like the tides were turning the Celtics’ way and capturing Game 4 would give them a complete strap hold in this series.
91-86. That was the tally after Jaylen Brown had just finished an acrobatic lay-up and a free throw made by Marcus Smart with 7:36 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 4. The questions that quickly came to mind during this moment were: Are they going to pull this off with Stephen Curry shooting like bonkers? Do they have enough offensive juice to keep up?
The answer was a resounding no.
First and foremost, props to the Warriors’ defense for putting the Celtics’ offense in the mud. It was a combination of bad decisions in the halfcourt, lack of pace to push in transition (to capitalize on a non-set defense by Golden State), and inability to make consistent stops. I know it’s cliche to call it this way, but the inexperience of Boston might have played a factor in this downfall. And that was the game.
Same fourth-quarter struggles plagued the Celtics again in Game 5 (pay attention to the Warriors’ point of attack defense again!). According to InStat, Boston shot 31.6 percent from the field in the halfcourt back in Game 4 and for the succeeding game, they were much worse with 15.4 percent, including going 0-for-6 from long range. This time, it was a case of too much settling, not attacking the mismatches that worked for them the whole series, and of course, turnovers.
On the brink of elimination, Celtics started off with the early punch with a 14-2 run straight out of the gate. But when the Warriors’ started to trade blows, they gave in. Again, we go back to the reality that Golden State’s defense was stingy and possibly, the lack of depth finally bit Boston. In short, they just ran out of answers.
Early returns of disappointment have started to surface for the Celtics. Biggest of which is how they should have defended Stephen Curry pick-and-rolls. It for sure is a conundrum for 28 other teams, but the Celtics decided to use drop more this series. This type of coverage did give Stephen Curry more air space for pull-ups, as they decided to prevent the imminent threat of the short roll, or in layman’s term, the 4-on-3s, which will be created by a blitz. So it poses a talking point: were Curry’s supporting cast that talented to veer away from a blitz? Maybe. One thing was sure though, Boston tried to live on from Curry flurries and shut everybody down, which proved to be unlivable.
Another problem the Celtics had to deal with throughout the series was how they took care of the basketball. Already facing a great defense of Golden State, some of the unforced errors were just non-negotiable, knowing the Warriors’ offense thrived off of it. Give them a few chances in the fastbreak, the next thing you’ll know you’re down 20 on nth consecutive shots converted.
To cap it off, a real talking point should be discussed about Jayson Tatum. Is he the guy for the Celtics? Hell, yeah. Was his performance in the 2022 NBA Finals good enough? No, but certainly he has what it takes. If you’ve come this far reading, hopefully, you’ve watched the clips of how the Warriors were defending Tatum. To diminish what Tatum has shown in this playoff run is not the way. Yes, he had a fair share of struggles (36.7 percent/45.5 percent/65.6 percent shooting splits and 24 percent from the field in the fourth quarter), but a real hoop head would understand the load he has to carry offensively for Boston and how he flourished in discrete ways.
We’ve joked about Jayson Tatum’s age for a million times, but if we get factual, he’s already 24 now. Surprise, surprise! That’s still relatively young in the NBA. For him to be in the NBA Finals and appear in two Conference Finals along with core players like Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart in five years is such a huge feat.
My wish is that when we look back at the 2022 NBA Finals a decade from now, the narrative is that Golden State just outclassed Boston. Maybe by that time, this roster has its own chip to show for.
I’ll confidently bet that this isn’t the last time we see this version of the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.