Sports

This NBA Finals Might Make the Crappy Playoffs That Led Here Worth It

It’s the most intriguing seven-game matchup in years.

Tatum sets up a shot stone-faced; Green flexes and screams in celebration. Xes and Os with arrows dictating direction are illustrated behind and around them.
Jayson Tatum and Draymond Green. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Andy Lyons/Getty Images and Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

We’re finally there, or at least almost there. After a month and a half of NBA Playoffs only two teams are left, the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors, with the Finals beginning Thursday night. The Warriors have enjoyed a relatively smooth journey to this point, never facing a series that went longer than six games and recently making quick work of an overmatched Dallas Mavericks team in the Western Conference Finals. The Celtics, after an opening-round sweep against the miserable Brooklyn Nets, took about as bumpy a road as you can take, grinding out heart-attack wins in two punishing series against the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat, both of which went to seven games.

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These haven’t been the greatest playoffs by any stretch. The best series we saw, the aforementioned Celtics-Bucks second-round epic, had its instant-classic status slightly tarnished by the fact that the Bucks were missing their second-best player, Khris Middleton. The Suns-Mavs second-round seven-gamer out West will probably be remembered more for the top-seeded Suns’ spectacular meltdown than for anything the Mavs did. The Heat-Celtics Conference Finals was dramatic on the back end, but the first five games were mostly unwatchable. The Timberwolves-Grizzlies first-rounder was cute but not that close, and also feels like it happened several million years ago.

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Still, I think most observers would agree that, in Warriors-Celtics, we are left with the two best teams in the field. Neither of these squads are here by luck or by fluke. This series also promises to be a great matchup, pitting the Warriors’ virtuosic offensive brilliance against Boston’s rangy, suffocating defense. (No one should sleep on the fact that Golden State is a terrific defensive team as well, and Boston boasts a couple of the league’s more explosive offensive talents in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.) Vegas has the Warriors as favorites, which makes sense given their star power, experience, home-court advantage, and the ease with which they’ve dispatched their competition thus far. The Celtics are also more banged up, with key players Marcus Smart and Robert Williams both dealing with ongoing injury issues.

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This is the Warriors’ sixth Finals trip since 2015, and the Celtics’ first since 2010. The Warriors still have one of the greatest offensive players the sport has ever seen in Stephen Curry, who shows no signs of slowing down at age 34. So far Curry’s career has been dogged by a pesky and mostly incorrect narrative that he has tended to underperform in the Finals; this series offers a chance to definitively put that story to bed. Draymond Green remains a brilliant facilitator and the best defender in the sport, while Klay Thompson continues to round back into something like his old form after a couple years of devastating injuries. 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala is back on the team after a brief hiatus, and they’ve also added crucial new pieces in guard Jordan Poole (drafted in 2019, the last year the Warriors were in the Finals) and wing Andrew Wiggins. The Warriors are a loaded squad with relatively few injury issues for this time of year, and they’re coming off a generous helping of rest.

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No one should mistake these Celtics for long-shots, though. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s forecasting model favors them to win. In the human world, Boston is also the only NBA team with a winning record against the Warriors since Steve Kerr took over as Golden State’s coach back in 2014. The last time the two teams played, back in mid-March, the Celtics blew out the Warriors by 22 in San Francisco. If the Celtics prevail in this series, it will likely be because they overwhelmed Golden State on the defensive end of the floor, using size and versatility to dismantle Golden State’s offensive firepower. A win would give Boston a record 18th NBA championship, and would confirm that Tatum, at 24, has ascended to the highest tier of NBA superstardom. The young Celtics have also proved to be remarkably resilient in this postseason, having yet to lose two games in a row and winning a pair of would-be elimination games on the road.

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The Celtics and Warriors have only played each other once in the Finals, and that was in 1964, back when the Warriors were led by Wilt Chamberlain and most Americans assumed that the Beatles would be a passing fad. The Celtics won that series in five games. Fifty-eight years later, these Celtics and Warriors teams feel as though they are arriving to the Finals from something like opposite directions. The Warriors are back where they belong, after two long years of conspicuous absence. A win against Boston would certainly burnish their legacy, but that legacy was already secure with three titles in a four-year span and an irrevocable mantel as the defining team of the 2010s. The Celtics, on the other hand—and somewhat paradoxically, for the most decorated organization in the history of basketball—are new arrivals: No one on their roster has played in an NBA Finals, and with the exception of 35-year-old Al Horford their oldest rotation player is Smart, who’s only 28. Their coach, Ime Udoka, is in his first season in a head job. If the Celtics win, we could be seeing the birth of a defining team of the 2020s; even if they don’t, they have one of the brightest futures of any team in the NBA.

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It’s tempting, then, to frame this Celtics-Warriors series as a generational clash, the team with the aging but still iron-clad core that’s back in the Finals for one more hurrah, going up against the team of young upstarts that are impetuously banging at the door. And while there’s some truth to that, we shouldn’t let past-versus-future narratives distract from the fact that this series is about the present. The two best teams are in the Finals and are bringing us the most intriguing seven-game matchup the NBA has seen in years. If you’re a basketball fan, there’s no time like right now.

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