National Basketball Association

NBA Finals 2022: Can Jayson Tatum, Celtics’ defense beat Steph Curry?

June 2

By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer

Let’s be honest: This year’s playoffs have been, well, sort of meh. But I think that’s about to change with the start of the NBA Finals on Thursday.

The Boston Celtics have been the league’s best team since early January. The Golden State Warriors boast an all-time great player and two more future Hall of Famers, and they just tore through the Western Conference en route to the Finals. This is a fantastic matchup between two loaded, smartly constructed, well-coached and versatile squads.

"It’s just gonna be a dogfight," Klay Thompson said Wednesday. 

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I’d be stunned if this series didn’t last at least six games, and I fully expect it to go the full seven. I also think it will come down to which team’s defense is best able to slow the opposing star.

The Celtics finished the regular season with the league’s top-ranked defense, and they have basically played at the same level throughout the playoffs. The Warriors, meanwhile, have flipped the switch this postseason and rediscovered their offensive groove. The 116.1 points per 100 possessions they’ve put up is the top mark of any team in the playoffs and a number that during the regular season would have led the league. 

This will be like seeing the irresistible force paradox play out on a basketball court.

For the Warriors, that explosiveness starts and revolves around Stephen Curry. You know the deal by now. He’s the greatest 3-point shooter ever. He bends defenses like no player in NBA history — whether the ball is in his hands or he’s scurrying off a weak-side screen. Guarding him in the pick-and-roll — especially when he’s dancing with Draymond Green — is like being forced to reenact one of those scenes from "Saw" in which you have to choose between cutting off your foot or, like, shoving your head into a pit of fire.

Go under the screen, and he buries a 3. Go over the screen with a big man dropping back, and, well, he buries a 3. Switch, and he toys with the bigger defender before scooting by for a some sort of smooth runner (only Ja Morant averaged more points per isolation possession than Curry this postseason, according to Synergy tracking data). Trap Curry, and Green can slip and catch the ball in the paint with a four-on-three advantage. 

All the while, the rest of the group never ceases moving.

All that said, if there is a defense equipped to slow Curry and the Warriors, just enough to eke out a victory, it’s this unit belonging to the Celtics.

They have size and talent at every position. Marcus Smart is the Defensive Player of the Year and might not even be the best defensive player on his own team. Grant Williams is a 6-foot-6 brick with quick feet, and Stan Van Gundy described him as possibly the league's best defender. Jayson Tatum has grown into a stud on the wing. So has Jaylen Brown. Robert Williams III, when healthy (more on that later), is one of the NBA’s best rim protectors. And Al Horford is playing like it’s 2012.

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Want a wild stat? In Williams, Horford and Tatum, the Celtics boast three of the 10 most effective isolation defenders this postseason.

"You respect and admire that everyone is defending," Green said Wednesday when asked about the Celtics’ defense. "Not a guy comes on the floor that isn't giving 110 percent."

The Celtics’ D is built on the ability to switch across all five positions — their bigs can dance on the perimeter, and their smallest player, Smart, can hang with bigs — a tactic Boston deploys more than almost anyone. But what makes the Celtics so great is their ability to mix things up. Assistant coaches on teams that have faced them this postseason marvel at the unit’s versatility and savvy and ability to alter schemes and matchups, sometimes within the same possession.

The Celtics will likely spend the majority of the series with Smart matched up with Curry and a mix of Tatum, Williams and Horford on Green. I think we can assume they’ll switch most off-ball actions — you have to when facing a team that has lapped the field in terms of how many points it has generated on off-ball cuts, a result of Curry’s gravity — and a lot of the on-ball screens as well. I expect they’ll mix that stuff up a bit more, too, because you can’t show a star such as Curry the same coverage over multiple games.

One possible issue for the Celtics is the health of Robert Williams, who is essential to everything they do on defense but looked like a shell of himself against the Miami Heat in the East finals. Smart is also banged up. He told reporters Wednesday that he has a "pretty serious" ankle injury. "I’m thankful to let alone play and still be walking," he said.

Slowing Curry and this Golden State attack is difficult enough. Doing so without a full arsenal is a tall order.

On the other end of the court, the Warriors are going to have to figure out a way to slow Tatum, who has been unbelievable this postseason, averaging 27 points per game and shooting 37.5% from deep to go with just under seven rebounds and six assists. And, yes, I know it’s a team game and all that, but we have to give him credit for taking out Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler in consecutive series.

Tatum has always been a lethal scorer, one capable of getting buckets at every level. But where he has made a big leap the past few months is in his playmaking. Tatum is now able to hunt out specific matchups and bend defenses to his will, and the numbers back this up. He has assisted on a quarter of his teammates’ made shots, one of the top rates in the postseason and a 5% jump from his regular-season rate. And according to Second Spectrum, Tatum is creating 15.8 points per game via direct passes, about five more than he did in the regular season.

But the Warriors are no slouches. They finished the regular season with the league’s No. 2 defense. Any team featuring Draymond Green is going to be tough to score against. And we just saw Andrew Wiggins — likely the Warriors' wing who will draw the Tatum assignment — have some success against Luka Dončić, which is no easy feat.

The Warriors could also benefit from the return of Gary Payton II, who has been out since breaking his left elbow a month ago against the Memphis Grizzlies. Payton is the Warriors' best perimeter defender and someone coach Steve Kerr could toss onto Tatum for a few minutes each game.

But it also won’t matter who serves as the primary defender. Tatum is going to spend the series calling up whichever one of his teammates is being guarded by Curry or Jordan Poole and having him set a screen. Curry is used to this treatment by now and has grown adept at hedging and recovering back to his man, but Poole is a vulnerable target. In fact, no player this postseason has surrendered more points per 100 possessions when being isolated against, according to Synergy’s tracking data.

Tatum should be able to go off this series. The question is whether he can match Curry. Or, to put it a different way: Can Tatum and the Celtics’ defense combine to beat Curry? One reason I’m dubious: the Celtics’ crunch-time struggles this postseason. Their 94.7 crunch-time offensive rating is an ugly number, one that would have ranked third-worst during the regular season.

The Warriors, meanwhile, boast a crunch-time offensive rating of 121.5 in the playoffs. Which, of course, is courtesy of Curry’s greatness. Given how great both these teams are and how slim the margins will likely be, the ability to generate offense late in games could very well be the difference.

As great as Tatum is on offense, and as great as the entire Celtics team is on defense, I still give Curry the nod here. That’s why I’m going Warriors in seven.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of "Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports." Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.


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