Congratulations to the Golden State Warriors for winning their fourth NBA title since 2015. That answered critics worried that they were a team caught between generations from their core three of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green and their new generation of young players led by James Wiseman, Jordan Poole, and Jonathan Kuminga. But in hindsight, the Warriors may be remembered as a team carried by Curry who got it done despite an inconsistent Thompson still in long-term recovery from his torn ACL and Achilles injuries and a declining Green who already appears to be in the second half of his career.
I thought this would be a seven-game series that the Warriors would win (but I remained undecided on the likely point spread winner early on during the NBA Finals). I incorrectly thought Boston would play Golden State very tough on the road in the decisive fifth game. Could the Warriors get yet another superman effort from Curry who scored 43 points on 14 of 26 shooting in Game Four to even the series at 2-2? Head coach Steve Kerr had a dilemma regarding offering playing time to Kevon Looney. Golden State had a significant weakness in rebounding that comes with their reliance on outside shooting. In the Celtics’ 116-100 win in Game Three, they controlled the boards and outrebounded the Warriors by a 47-31 margin. They scored 52 points in the paint and scored 22 points off 15 offensive rebounds which allowed them to win by 16 points despite only making 12 of 35 shots (37.5%) of their shots from 3-point range. Kerr gave Looney more court time in Game Four to address the rebounding disadvantage — and he responded with 11 boards in his 28:10 minutes up action, up 11 1/2 minutes from Game Three. But the problem with Looney on the court is that he offers nothing on the offensive end. Boston head coach Ime Udoka was unable to push the buttons in Games Five or Six to expose that liability — but that may speak more to the limitations of his team playing in their first NBA Finals.
Game Five was certainly pivotal — and it exposed the lack of championship experience of this Celtics group. It reminded me of how Golden State lost 2016 final to Cleveland. Boston’s Marcus Smart got too caught up in drawing fouls and flopping, a game within the game. Smart was flopping throughout the second half in a close game and then whining for calls which is just rarely going to happen for teams playing on the road (and by a player who lacks a title, despite being the reigning Defensive Player of the Year). And then the refs rewarded Jordan Poole's flop from a phantom Smart elbow (that missed by a mile) that the officials still called as a flagrant foul. That helped cement Golden State's 4th quarter momentum swing. The refs injected themselves into the game — and they got it wrong.
Boston dug themselves too big a hole to win Game 5, but, wow, they still could have covered if they could have just been given the room to rebound before the refs started giving the Warriors 3-point swings (and Smart being on tilt did not help, of course). That Poole 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the third quarter certainly played a role in re-establishing the momentum for Golden State — and laid the foundation for Smart losing focus by doing his best Neymar impersonation by flopping around before Poole gets away with his flop. The Warriors went on to win by a 104-94 score despite Curry having that off-day by missing all nine shots from behind the arc.
The Celtics' lack of urgency in handling and passing the basketball was been infuriating to watch at times. They had yet to learn that every playoff possession demands finer attention to detail — when Golden State turns the ball over, it is usually a function of their attempt to be aggressive (and is more forgivable). Too many of Boston’s 18 turnovers in that Game Five were a product of lackadaisicalness. It was tied for most turnovers they had committed in their last nine games and tied for the second-most in their last 62 games. Conversely, the Warriors only committed six turnovers in Game Five which was tied for the fewest turnovers they committed all season going back to Game Three of the regular when they also only had six turnovers at Sacramento on October 24th.
The Celtics need to upgrade their point guard position in the offseason, but a lack of a true distributor does not explain how they followed up those 18 turnovers in Game Five with 22 turnovers in Game Six. Udoka could not fix the too many unforced errors that were giving Golden State scoring opportunities in transition. Maybe Boston will learn from the experience.
But I do not think this Warriors team beats the Warriors team in 2017 that lost to the Cavaliers. And this group certainly does not beat the LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love trio. Golden State then won two titles with Kevin Durant the third wheel with Curry and Thompson. But this ’21-22 group reminded me of that ’17 squad that got caught up in talking and engaging in flopping theatrics with Cleveland that eventually led to Green missing a game due to suspension. When the Cavaliers trailed 3-2 in that series, James had his team completely dial into the task at hand. The Warriors still were engaging in the extra-curricular — and it played a role in them losing the last two games in the series. I am not sure this 2021-22 team learned much from that experience (outside of the value of adding Durant).
But Golden State did benefit from playing a young and inexperienced Celtics team. They did not even have to play the young and inexperienced team from the year before the Phoenix Suns who could not get past Dallas. That Mavericks team had one great player in Luka Doncic before then banking on getting hot from behind the arc. Boston benefitted in getting to the finals by outlasting the reigning champions in the Milwaukee Bucks who were without their second-best player, the injured Khris Middleton. And do not start about the Brooklyn Nets because if you think that team had a switch somewhere to somehow start playing defense and finding an offensive flow to their game behind the big two of Durant and Kyrie Irving who are living off the reputations of postseasons past, then you were watching a different game than me.
The 2021-22 NBA season was a down year in the overall quality of the elite teams in the league. Kudos to Curry for doing what James did in the season in the bubble to seize on the championship opportunity. But while the Warriors were perhaps a team caught between generations, I suspect the NBA is experiencing a similar transition. While the NBA media breathlessly wonders about the offseason fates of Durant, Irving, and James Harden, I look to the league’s young superstars like Doncic, Ja Morant, and a handful of other players with loads of potential where the likely future NBA titles — and potential dynasties — will be had.
Best of luck — Frank.