Here are 10 matchups and trends to watch when the Celtics face the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
1. Set it up
It seems that the Celtics have had real turnover issues during the playoffs, but they’re averaging 14 per game, right in the middle of the pack. But their miscues tend to come with a more significant cost. Their top-ranked defense has been elite, particularly in half-court sets. But things have been more shaky with live-ball turnovers, and the Warriors excel at pushing the pace, spraying their shooters to the corner, and looking for a quick-hit advantage.
2. Robert Williams’s knee
The Celtics center missed nearly a month after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus March 27 and then suffered a bone bruise on the same knee during the conference semifinals. There have been moments when he looked like his rim-running, shot-swatting self, but they’ve been rare. And during Game 7 vs. the Heat, he simply looked hobbled. Williams had 2 points and three rebounds in 14 minutes.
Coach Ime Udoka said Williams is still dealing with some swelling that is limiting his movement.
Despite being known for their outside shooters, the Warriors are averaging 47.6 points in the paint during these playoffs, fourth in the league. Williams, who has thrived in a free safety role, could be vital against the Warriors’ slashers such as Jordan Poole.
Golden State has not been relying on the 3-pointer as much as one might expect. So far, 41.6 percent of its shots in the playoffs have come from beyond the arc, compared with 45.5 percent for the Celtics.
3. Kings of the fourth
The Warriors have been absolutely spectacular during fourth quarters in the playoffs. Over 16 games, they have outscored opponents by 25.4 points per 100 possessions, nearly 9 points better than the closest team. They also own an otherworldly 133.9 offensive rating in fourth quarters.
Udoka has often said one of the goals of his physical, relentless, switch-heavy defense is to wear down an opponent for the first 36 minutes so it starts scuffling during the final 12. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler both looked gassed at times late in games against Boston. The Finals could become a battle of attrition.
4. Star power
Jayson Tatum and Stephen Curry were the MVPs of the conference finals, but neither was particularly dominant in those series or, for that matter, these playoffs. Tatum has one 40-point game and eight with at least five turnovers. Curry has yet to score more than 34 points and he has missed 18 free throws.
But both are capable of erupting, and if one does, it could tip the scales. Given that Curry is 34 and missed the final 12 games of the regular season with a foot injury — suffered when Marcus Smart rolled onto him while chasing a loose ball — Tatum seems better positioned to catch fire.
5. On the front lines
Milwaukee’s towering frontcourt of Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Bobby Portis made life difficult for the Celtics in the paint. The Warriors aren’t nearly as imposing. No starter stands taller than 6 feet 9 inches, and in the starting lineups, the Celtics could have a size edge at each position. Although Kevon Looney has been gobbling up rebounds during the postseason, he is not a significant threat as a rim protector.
Of course, the Warriors’ lineup choices will dictate how much the Celtics lean into their length. If Golden State puts four knockdown shooters on the floor at once, for example, it will make it tough for Boston to play double-big groups. It should be an interesting chess match.
6. Road warriors
For the second series in a row, the Celtics will not have home-court advantage. At this point, though, that might not matter. After outscoring opponents by a league-best 7.7 points per 100 possessions on the road during the regular season, the Celtics have crafted a sparkling 7-2 record away from TD Garden in the playoffs.
Chase Center’s crowd will be rowdier than the others. But there are a lot of Boston transplants in the Bay Area. So look for green to find its way into the building.
On the other hand, the Warriors have become a global road show, and they’ll have more supporters at TD Garden than any other visiting team in these playoffs did.
7. Golden additions?
The Celtics have caught some breaks during the playoffs. The Nets were missing Ben Simmons and sharpshooter Joe Harris. The Bucks were without All-Star forward Khris Middleton. Heat stars Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro combined to miss five games. But Golden State, a team that has been ravaged by injuries in recent seasons, enters the Finals with its key pieces intact.
The absences have been on the periphery, with Gary Payton II (elbow), Otto Porter (foot), and Andre Iguodala (neck) all sidelined. Payton, a top defender, has been out since early in the conference semifinals and would provide a lift at that end of the floor. Porter’s plus-15 net rating in the playoffs leads Golden State by nearly 5 points. The Warriors are hopeful that all three will return for this series.
8. A familiar spotlight
The Celtics haven’t shied away from spotlights, and their road performance has shown that they do not get rattled. But these are the Finals, and no Boston player has experience on this stage. The Warriors core, meanwhile, will be entering its sixth Finals.
If the Celtics have jitters, they’re unlikely to last long, but it’s worth keeping an eye on in Game 1. Regardless, don’t expect the Celtics to be at all intimidated by the stars on the other side. They’re 9-7 against Golden State during the Steve Kerr era, the best record among opponents.
9. Secondary options
Udoka essentially whittled his rotation to seven over the final three games of the conference finals, with Payton Pritchard the odd man out. But Golden State does not have a physical isolation player such as Butler who can exploit a matchup against Pritchard. This series could present opportunities for the sharpshooter. The Celtics have a plus-10.9 net rating with Pritchard on the court during this postseason, the best among rotation players.
10. Weak links
The Celtics won’t have as much trouble seeking out weaker links in Golden State’s defense. Curry will be hunted in switches, although he has generally held up well. Poole, who provides instant offense off the bench, will need plenty of help whenever he ends up on Tatum or Brown. Also, Klay Thompson has lost a step defensively after missing most of the last two seasons with injuries.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.