Sports

Why This NBA Championship Feels So Gratifying—Even for a Celtics Fan

It helps that the future is bright for basketball fans of all kinds.

Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry seated and all holding up four fingers to celebrate their fourth NBA title, smiling and wearing their championship caps and T-shirts, Klay holding the Larry O'Brien trophy and Steph holding his Finals MVP trophy, with an X-es, Os, and arrows basketball play illustrated behind them
Four, four, four, four. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images.

So this is how it ends, in a conclusion that, after two full months of playoff basketball, suddenly feels rather obvious. The Golden State Warriors are NBA champions, winning a decisive Game 6 against the Celtics in Boston on Thursday night and icing a hard-fought series that, by the end, didn’t feel all that close. Stephen Curry scored 34 points to go with 7 rebounds and 7 assists in the close-out game, capping off a spectacular Finals that firmly moves him into the upper echelons of the game’s all-time greats. Surveying the state of basketball the morning after, it’s hard not to feel like a monarchy has been triumphantly restored.

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This is the Warriors’ fourth championship in the past eight seasons and quite possibly their most satisfying. It feels like a final, resounding answer to some of the stupider questions that have hung around this team over the course of its historic run. Can the Warriors win without Kevin Durant, the much fretted-over free-agent acquisition who powered their 2017 and 2018 title teams? Can a team really win multiple titles with a 6-foot-2 jump shooter as its centerpiece? Can Steph Curry win a Finals MVP? Yes, yes, yes, for the love of God now please shut up.

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The Warriors won the way great teams tend to win: They played sensational defense, they made better decisions than their opponents on both ends, and they had the best player on the floor by a considerable margin. The advantages of Finals experience were crushingly evident, particularly in Games 5 and 6, as even Warriors players who hadn’t been around for the team’s last Finals trip in 2019 seemed bolstered by a general vibe of veteran confidence. The Warriors’ second-best player in this series was Andrew Wiggins, a formerly disappointing No. 1 overall pick acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves in a mildly controversial 2020 trade that now looks like one of the most lopsided deals in recent NBA history.

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Throughout much of the Finals there was a strange refrain in certain corners of NBA media that the Celtics were the “better team” of the two, a claim that seemed self-evidently contradicted by the actual games themselves. The Celtics had horrific problems with turnovers, a trend that spoke to their carelessness and to Golden State’s savvy opportunism. But bad passing and even worse dribbling aren’t flukes or character flaws; they’re indications that your team needs to get better at fundamental aspects of playing basketball. Particularly in the back half of the series, the Warriors felt like a veteran team confident to take its shots while also patiently letting the younger Celtics find ways to get flustered, and then get beaten.

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Still, as I wrote at the start of this series, this Finals felt like the two best teams in basketball had rightly found their way to the top, and I don’t think anything we saw over the past six games really refutes that. The Celtics went up 2 games to 1 before Golden State methodically and summarily put the screws to them; Thursday night’s season-ending defeat marked the first time that the C’s had lost three games in a row since late December. That’s the mark of a ridiculously good basketball team, one that just happened to run into an even better one.

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There is an unimpeachable quality to this Warriors championship that feels gratifying as a basketball fan, even one who was admittedly rooting (very hard) for the Celtics. Golden State isn’t a team that got hot or got lucky; it’s not a team that disproportionately benefitted from opponents’ injuries or dubious officiating or the blessings of free agency. The Warriors are unequivocally the best team in the NBA in 2022, and there’s no reason to think that they’re going anywhere: Vegas has them as 5–1 favorites to win the 2023 title as well.

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As for the Celtics, any loss like this is a brutal disappointment, but in all honesty if even three months ago you’d told any Celtics fan that their team would be playing a Game 6 in the Finals at home against the Golden State Warriors in mid-June, they would have been elated. For much of the 2021-22 season, this wasn’t a team that anyone really expected to be here, not at the beginning of the season and certainly not in early January, when they were fumbling around just trying to keep their heads above .500. The heaps of turnovers and late-game execution problems in this series (and, frankly, previous series) will haunt the team and their fans for months to come, but these are correctable issues for a young squad that should feel optimistic in its overachievement.

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Boston’s future is spectacularly bright—the Celtics are currently at 6–1 odds for 2023, and all of their key players are under contract for next season. (The team has reportedly already decided to fully guarantee 36-year-old Al Horford’s option, who put up a valiant 19 points and 14 rebounds in Game 6.) Core stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, at 24 and 25 respectively, are only just entering their primes; reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart is 28 and just last summer signed a four-year, $77 million contract extension that now looks like a serious bargain; and there’s no reason to think that young and critical role players like Robert Williams III, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard won’t continue to improve.

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Much of the same can be said for the Warriors. Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are getting older, but you wouldn’t have really guessed it from Game 6; Wiggins (provided they can keep him) is only 27, and 22-year-old Jordan Poole looks like a future star. Recent lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and James Wiseman wait in the wings. The team has one of the most aggressive front offices and plushest operating budgets in the league, a mandate to win and keep winning that’s the envy of 29 other teams’ fans.

The NBA is a 12-month league; in less than a week we’ll have the NBA draft, and then a mere eight days after that is the start of free agency. For many teams we’re entering a time of hope, change, revolution, renewal. Neither the Celtics nor the Warriors have to worry about much of that. These were the two best teams in the NBA; there’s no real reason to think that will change between now and October, when the 2022-23 season starts, and it might not even change between now and next June. There’s a lot of basketball between now and then. But I can’t wait, even though I’m happy for a break.

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