Celtics/Warriors is a particularly interesting matchup for the NBA Finals on many levels. Let’s breakdown some of the facts that caught my attention….
Ancient History Between Celtics and Warriors
It has little relevance to the current squads but the Celtics and the old Warriors had quite an interesting rivalry while Wilt Chamberlain was with the Philly/Golden State franchise. Wilt had little luck actually beating Bill Russell during that time but here’s the breakdown of their prior playoff match ups:
-1957-58: Boston beat the Warriors 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals. This was actually the Neil Johnston/Paul Arizin Warriors (pre-Wilt). Boston went up 3-0 and controlled the series (Russ had 28.8 rpg). Johnston shot well but was held way below his regular season average. Tom Gola and Woody Sauldsberry couldn’t make a shot (they were 33% from the field).
-1959-60: Boston beat the Warriors 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Wilt shot better in the series than in the regular season (50% versus 46%) but he scored 7 fewer ppg. Russ had 21 ppg and 27 rpg and Boston largely controlled the series, getting out to a 3-1 lead. Bob Cousy couldn’t get a shot off (he shot 30%) but Russell and Tom Heinsohn carried the load. After the series, Wilt threatened to retire because he was getting fouled too much.
-1961-62: Boston beat the Warriors 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals. This was the closest series between the squads. This was the year Wilt had 50 ppg but Boston held him down to 33.6 ppg on 47% shooting (he shot 50% in the regular season). Boston never quite ran away with the series as the team alternated wins all series and Game 7 was a barnburner too. Wilt had only 22 points in Game 7. Despite the back-and-forth wins, Boston outscored Philly by nearly 6 ppg.
-1963-64: Boston beat the Warriors 4-1 in the NBA Finals. The Warriors had moved to San Francisco and this was their only Finals meet up with Boston until 2022. Even though the series was 4-1, the Warriors were actually pretty tough. They were only outscored by 4 ppg and Wilt had his best showing against Russell (29.2 ppg, .517 FG%, 27.6 rpg). Russell had 25.2 rpg but only 11.2 ppg on .386 FG%. I suspect that Wilt being paired with a young Nate Thurmond helped. This series is most famous for Wilt decking Clyde Lovellette.
Per Earl Strom in Terry Pluto’s “Tall Tales,”: “Lovellette was at the end of his career and playing backup center for Boston…the Celtics were way ahead, ready to win the title….Lovellette, who thought he was going to put on a show for the Boston fans….was bumping Wilt, throwing some elbows. Wilt said, ‘Look, Clyde, the game is over….cut the crap out or I’ll knock you out.’….Clyde [then] stuck him with an elbow. Wilt turned, put the ball on the floor, then reared back and punched Lovellette in the jaw. Clyde went down in sections, he was out cold….Red yell to me, ‘I want Wilt out of the game.’ I said, ‘Red, get this stiff [Lovellette] out of here so we can finish the game.”
There you have it…Boston went 4-0 against the Warriors in the playoffs and the last time they met, the lasting image is Wilt knocking someone out. It’s been a long 58 years.
Despite all the hype surrounding its offense, the Warriors were a defense-first team in the regular season: 112.5 O-Rating (17th), 106.9 D-Rating (1st) and 98.4 pace (13th). The Warriors have been slightly slower but a bit more offensively inclined in the playoffs. Some of that was due to the match ups with the more offensive Nuggets and Mavs. The Grizzlies series was a much more grind out affair and we should expect that same slower pace against Boston.
Boston has been sort of a throwback to the 1990s style: 114.4 O-Rating (7th), 106.9 D-Rating (2nd) on a languid 96.6 pace (24th). In fact, Boston has been slower and better defensively in the playoffs (match ups with the Bucks and Heat probably colored the stats a bit). The Celtics offense, which is primarily isolating Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on a switched defender, isn’t beautiful but it works. It should be fascinating to see how Boston tries to isolate the Warriors’ weaker defenders (Jordan Poole). The return of Gary Payton II is going to be quite important because he is well-suited to defend this game plan.
The teams went 1-1, each winning on the other’s home court but the results are pretty meaningless. GS won in Boston early in the year when the Celtics were a struggling team. Boston trounced the Warriors later but Stephen Curry barely played. It should be noted that the Celtics have played the Warriors pretty well in Golden State over the last few years, even when the Warriors were at their peak.
A Little Historical Love for Boston
SRS isn’t everything but Boston had the best in the NBA this year (7.02). This is a really good team. To give a little context, in the vaunted history of the Celtics, the 2021-22 squad tanks higher than many Russell and Bird teams. Here are the Boston SRS leaders:
1. 2007-08, 66-16, 9.30
2. 1985-86, 67-15, 9.06
3. 1961-62, 60-20, 8.25
4. 1959-60, 59-16, 7.62
5. 1964-65, 62-18, 7.46
6. 2008-09, 62-20, 7.44
7. 1979-80, 61-21, 7.37
8. 1972-73, 68-14, 7.35
9. 1966-67, 60-21, 7.24
10. 2021-22, 51-31, 7.02
SRS is a slippery tool, particularly during the era of load management and Covid but this team has been really impressive.
Unprecedented: Return of Golden State to the Finals
I was trying to come up with a historical analog for the 2021-22 Warriors. The former dynasty looked decidedly over after 2019. Have we ever seen another dynasty reinvigorate after it looked like the window had closed? Other dynasties have returned to the Finals after a two year drought. The 1983-84 Celtics did the same thing but they were a much younger bunch. Similarly, the Bulls bounced back in 1995-96 with an older team but they were missing Michael Jordan for two years.
The closest comparison I could come up with was the late model Spurs of 2012-13 and 2013-14, who had missed the Finals from 2007 until finally breaking through again in 2013. This isn’t quite the same as the current Warriors either because those Spurs teams were still great that whole time they were not making the Finals while the Warriors’ window looked like it had totally closed after two bad seasons. In other words, the 2021-22 Warriors should be appreciated, we may not see Golden State as a contender again.
The Bottom Line
This is a very close series but the Warriors have a few advantages: (a) home court advantage, (b) they are well-rested, (c) the Warriors can score more easily than most of Boston’s prior opponents, and (d) the Warriors have quite a lot of experience in the Finals. None of these facts are decisive but, in a close series, I think it gives the Warriors the slight edge. The other factor to consider is Boston’s great three-point defense (.317% so far in the playoffs). I just don’t believe that Boston can shut down Curry and the tons of great shooters like they did against more tepid shooting Milwaukee and Miami teams (the Nets shot quite well from three against Boston). This will be fascinating to watch and Boston has a good chance of winning but I can’t quite get there. Prediction: Warriors in seven games.