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We Didn’t See This NBA Finals Matchup Coming

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Eight grueling months after we started this NBA season, we’re finally down to our final two: the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors, just like everyone predicted back in October.

We have to acknowledge that FiveThirtyEight’s model absolutely did not see this coming: We gave the Celtics just a 12 percent shot to make the Finals back in the preseason, and the Warriors got an abysmal 0.5 percent. We could be forgiven for our Boston hesitation — the team in green didn’t really turn it on until midseason, and we’ve been firmly aboard the Celtics train ever since.

But Golden State, well … our model hasn’t loved the Warriors all season: Even after they started 18-2, we still just gave them an 11 percent chance to make the Finals, and even now that they came out on top in the West, we still don’t give them much of a chance. So let’s start with that: We give the Warriors just a 20 percent chance to win it all. Are you buying or selling the Warriors?

zatzman (Louis Zatzman, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m buying the Warriors without hesitation at that price.

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Definitely buying at 20 percent. They’re the betting-market favorites.

james.jackson (James L. Jackson, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m buying the Warriors more than I’ve seen others.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): BUYING … but I should state that I am a Warriors fan. And I fully accept that bias.

sara.ziegler: So Dre is a fan, and I get that. But if you were gonna throw our model out the window (which I don’t recommend, LOL), what probability would you assign the Warriors in this series?

dre.waters: Sorry, Sara, that model is already out of the window. 75 percent, minimum.

james.jackson: My personal metric system is a tad rusty, but I could give Golden State a 60 to 70 percent chance at winning this? 

dre.waters: That’s what we like to hear James! Any other takers?

james.jackson: Thankfully Dre is objectively biased!

dubin: As the person that wrote our season preview, I should note that the model was particularly low on the Warriors before the season for two reasons:

  1. It viewed Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Gary Payton II as the only net-positive players in the projected rotation. That turned out to be wrong, as at least according to RAPTOR, Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney, Otto Porter and Jordan Poole were also positives during the regular season.1
  1. It heavily penalized them for the presence of Klay Thompson in the rotation, due to the way it handles long-term injuries. Klay wound up being pretty damn good, all things considered, even if not quite the same player he was pre-ACL and Achilles tears. (He didn’t play enough minutes to qualify for the RAPTOR leaderboard, but ended up pretty close to neutral, rather than a clear negative. Given the way his shooting bends opposing defenses, I’d say that undersells his impact.)

james.jackson: Klay is gonna be really important this series. Golden State is 5-1 when he scores at least 20 points this postseason.

zatzman: I just dug into why RAPTOR hates Klay so much! He’s played so well individually, yet his impact numbers have been putrid. Some of it is bad luck (opponents hitting really hard shots when he’s playing defense, and Steph missing fairly easy shots when he’s playing offense), but he isn’t completely what he was before. Still, the fact that the Warriors have been so dominant with Klay’s impact so muted is almost a positive for them going forward, no? His impact could easily be huge in this series, which RAPTOR doesn’t expect.

sara.ziegler: Or maybe RAPTOR knows the truth about Klay …

(Or maybe not.)

dubin: I think a key is that defenses don’t treat him like his impact is muted. They still freak out because he’s KLAY THOMPSON. And with good reason, as he still hit nearly 39 percent of his threes this year.

james.jackson: The Warriors have played the second-most clutch-time minutes this postseason (30) while shooting 50 percent in those situations. Boston is shooting only 37 percent when it’s late and close, so I’m curious who thrives within those margins.

zatzman: We’re expecting games to be close when it’s late?!

sara.ziegler: No one told the rest of the playoff teams.

james.jackson: Both teams have played with their food this postseason, so it wouldn’t surprise me!

dubin: I’m pretty close to 50-50 on this series. That “playing with their food” aspect of both teams throws me off. They both have these weird stretches where they are just straight-up giving the ball to the other team. And both defenses are great, which can bring that type of stretch out of opponents.

zatzman: I’m with you, Jared — probably more bullish on Boston than everyone else here. Their defense could take things away from Golden State that we haven’t seen yet this year.

dubin: Neither of these teams has played a team like the other in the playoffs so far. Playoff series are all vastly different organisms, so how they’ve played to date really has very minimal effect on how they’ll play in the Finals.

I’ll be interested to see how much Looney and Time Lord we get in this series. How often will both coaches be tempted to go small?

dre.waters: Time Lord is still a hilarious nickname, btw.

james.jackson: Truly, tbh.

dubin: I sometimes like to call him the Lord of Time, just to fancy it up a bit.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

zatzman: In my mind, Boston’s best chance is in switching everything at the point of attack to try to negate Golden State’s shooting. Switching the pick and roll is the high-volume defense type against which Steph and Poole have struggled the most, and Boston has been one of the best and most frequent users of the switch. Robert Williams doesn’t switch as much as Boston’s other bigs, so the Time Lord might see his minutes reduced.

dre.waters: We know the Warriors love to go small: Their five-man lineup of Curry, Poole, Thompson, Wiggins and Green has been the team’s second-best in terms of net rating (+15.7 points per 100 possessions) this postseason.2 So it could easily get to a point where we don’t see Looney much. But Williams is a bigger question to me.

james.jackson: Al Horford’s ability to space the floor could make Williams’s shortened minutes easier to digest. Horford has 28 catch-and-shoot threes this postseason, third in the league and most on the team.

dubin: Williams looked like he could barely move in Game 7. The Warriors don’t run 100 pick and rolls a night, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them try to test his lateral mobility that way. (The Celtics would probably just pre-switch to avoid it and start another tactical chess match that way.)

sara.ziegler: I’m fascinated by how those chess moves will play out. What are the specific matchups you all have your eye on?

james.jackson: Whoever is tasked with annoying Steph in the Finals often fascinates me. Steph against Marcus Smart might be my favorite matchup.

zatzman: Agreed! Steph is arguably one of the greatest off-ball movers of all time, and Smart is one of the only players quick enough to stay with him and strong enough to bump him off his cuts.

james.jackson: I don’t have any flop predictions tho.

sara.ziegler: OMG, I can’t wait to see them go at each other.

dubin: Smart vs. Steph, 100 percent, and then what the Warriors do about Jaylen Brown. I imagine Klay will get the first crack, but they might switch things up a bit. And do they ever try something like Draymond on Jayson Tatum or Brown? Maybe Draymond on Smart to switch the Tatum-Smart pick and roll? I think that side of the ball is more interesting because it’s less straightforward.

zatzman: Draymond will be guarding everything, everywhere, all at once.

sara.ziegler: Draymond in the metaverse.

james.jackson: Who wants to guess the Warriors player who has swung Golden State’s net rating the most in these playoffs?

zatzman: Andrew Wiggins! Defender extraordinaire, and probably the Tatum-stopper in this series. 

james.jackson: That’s right, Louis! By 16.2 points per 100 possessions!

It will also be interesting to see how Boston’s bigs attack Looney. Without James Wiseman, Looney needs to hold things down for Golden State as he has throughout these playoffs, and how quickly Boston gets him into foul trouble could shorten the Warriors’ margin for error.

dubin: “Without Wiseman” hahahaha.

Does he still exist?

james.jackson: In our hearts and 2022-23 fantasy projections!

dre.waters: Yeah, I think I’m the outlier here. But I’d be interested to see what Payton does if he plays significant minutes this series. If he plays, I think they might let him try guarding Brown or Smart.

dubin: Oh, and GPII coming back could be huge, as it would give the Warriors another option on the guards.

sara.ziegler: Jinx!

james.jackson: The Warriors love using GPII as a screener on offense, too. He inverts their attack really well, so that could be a fun layer!

dre.waters: He’s made quite a few big baskets for the team this postseason as well.

dubin: The Celtics do that, too. Tatum-Smart and Tatum-Derrick White pick-and-roll combinations have been some of their best stuff all year (and especially last round).

zatzman: With Payton and maybe even Porter and Andre Iguodala coming back, the Warriors are really deep at guard and wing and really shallow at the big spot. To James’s point, If Looney gets into foul trouble, it will matter a lot! Both teams shoot a lot of threes, so if anyone breaks out at the rim it will swing the series. Looney’s defense will play a huge role.

james.jackson: Per NBA Advanced Stats, Golden State’s most-used playoff unit has been Curry, Thompson, Green, Wiggins and Looney, sporting a net rating of +17.3.

That figure falls to 1.9 with Looney on the bench.

zatzman: And all of Brown, Tatum and Smart are in the 90th percentile or better at drawing fouls. That could be tough for Golden State.

dre.waters: To me, the Warriors’ versatility is why I’m pretty bullish on them, aside from my fandom of course. I think Golden State can match up really well outside of the stars and keep guys like Grant Williams and White from having some of the big nights we’ve seen from them this postseason.

dubin: “Which team can avoid the ridiculous turnover binge” might be my defining question for the series. Golden State (mostly just Draymond and sort of Steph) gets so careless sometimes, and the Celtics occasionally look like they forgot how to play offense, or even what offense is.

sara.ziegler: “The series will be won by the team that most remembers what offense is” is my favorite take.

dubin: Williams and White, in particular, can’t hesitate to shoot when they get left open. They’ve sometimes short-circuited the offense by passing up shots. When they’re aggressive, everything goes much more smoothly.

zatzman: Another matchup I’m excited for is the Horford-Green contest. Any bucket from either is going to feel so back-breaking for the other team. Will Horford continue to rain triples? Will Draymond keep shooting as well as he did against Dallas?

Both teams will try to find those targets on the defensive end, as you say, Jared — there are too many strong scorers to guard everyone close. And I think Horford and Green are going to be ignoring each other quite a bit.

dubin: Horford and Draymond are almost certain to not guard each other though, right? Draymond and Williams will guard each other so they can roam on the back end?

zatzman: Well, then they’ll really be ignoring each other, certainly.

sara.ziegler: LOL

zatzman: I’m more referring to the times when they have to, in the minutes with both teams playing small.

james.jackson: Yeah, I can see them matching up if Golden State goes small — they don’t have many backup 5 options.

dubin: I could also be totally wrong and they do guard each other because it’s easier to handle pick-and-roll stuff that way. It would also keep Looney and Robert Williams closer to the rim.

I know it’s shocking that I could be wrong, but it has happened before.

dre.waters: LOL

dubin: (Once. I think.)

james.jackson: The 2016 Finals surprised us all, Jared!

sara.ziegler: We’ll check the record after the chat.

dubin: Wait no, don’t fact-check that.

james.jackson: 🤣

sara.ziegler: Just mentioning all of the “X-factor” kinds of players on these teams really drives home the point that there are a lot of “glue guys” on these teams. If you had to pick one, which role player do you see stepping up to put his team over the top?

james.jackson: Poole for Golden State. He takes pressure off of Steph being on-ball, and he’s key to the Warriors’ offense staying afloat if Smart gives Steph problems.

dubin: Depending on who we’re counting as role players, Poole and Horford seem most capable of “Finals-swinging” performances, I think. Other guys will obviously contribute, but I can’t envision writing that, like, Porter or Payton Pritchard were the key to the series when it’s over.

james.jackson: I so badly wanna mention Bob Cousy as an X-factor, so here it is.

dre.waters: I would have said Poole, but I really think Looney could have one of those “Finals-swinging” performances as well, Jared.

I know we just said we might not see him much, but if we do, he’s been steadily improving throughout the postseason both on the boards and as a scorer. After averaging just 2.4 points and 4.2 rebounds during the first round. Looney worked his way up to averaging a double-double in the Western Conference finals vs. the Mavs, with 10.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. 

dubin: Looney’s minutes could be a barometer, but for different reasons. If he’s playing well enough that Kerr wants him out there 25-to-30 minutes a night, that’s great. But if he has to be out there 25-to-30 minutes a night because they’re getting hammered on the glass, that’s not great.

sara.ziegler: I can’t get over what Horford has done this postseason.

dubin: At the not-at-all-extremely-advanced age of 35!

sara.ziegler: I know the “old guy does great stuff” trope is overdone, but man, I love to see the old guys doing great stuff.

Al Horford: Keeping us all young!

zatzman: He’s going to be asked to switch onto Steph so, so much in the pick and roll. For Boston to win, he’ll have to keep doing great stuff.

dubin: If you have heard that 35 is old, I can tell you, having recently turned 35 … yeah it’s definitely old.

james.jackson: Horford trails only Tatum in total plus-minus this postseason with a mark of +126!

sara.ziegler: I love this for him, after the journey he was on the past couple of years.

james.jackson: My man was at his kid’s kindergarten graduation a year ago! 

zatzman: A lot of Oklahoma City Thunder discards reaching the Finals these past few years.

sara.ziegler: I’m also really interested in the coaching matchup. Ime Udoka has found the right gear for his immensely talented squad, while Steve Kerr has rebuilt a contender around his trio of stars. How do you see the coaching chess match playing out?

james.jackson: Udoka isn’t afraid to speak up to his players or simply try what’s necessary. Kerr has experience in this round, but the likes of Erik Spoelstra have spoken highly of Udoka, who is the only rookie coach to win multiple Game 7s.

I don’t think Ime will be outta his element.

dubin: It’s fascinating because Kerr has a lot more options. Udoka basically has seven guys (eight if you count Pritchard), and we know what role they’re going to play. The Warriors can use any of Porter, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and Payton (in addition to their starters and Poole), depending on what they’re going for. And Kerr is liable to dust off Damion Lee at any moment. (Sometimes having more options isn’t a good thing.)

And Iguodala could come back!

dre.waters: Kerr has also shown the willingness to give each of those guys significant minutes. He’s started nearly all of them (Payton, Porter and Kuminga) at some point throughout this postseason.

dubin: Nemanja Bjelica! Juan Toscano-Anderson! All different looks, and Kerr has been willing to use all of them at different times.

dre.waters: We did it again, Jared, lol.

dubin: 🤣

zatzman: Such a hard thing to predict. As Jared said earlier, neither team has played a team yet this postseason like the other. Kerr likes to get crazy, as we all know. Will he dust off a zone? They’ve been pretty good at it at times in these playoffs. Will he run another two-rookie lineup? Without knowing how the team will start, tactics-wise, it’s hard to know what they’ll adjust to.

sara.ziegler: Maybe he’ll do something wild like start Poole. 🤯

zatzman: Send Steph back to the bench!

james.jackson: Why not? Never won a Finals MVP (yet)!

dre.waters: First Wiseman appearance of the season? lol 👀

sara.ziegler: OMG

zatzman: But we’ve all mentioned only what Golden State could adjust to. Does Boston have contingency plans? The Celtics have an incredible defense that hasn’t failed yet, and their offense has crawled by at times. If Golden State forces them to change, what do they become?

james.jackson: Turnover-prone, as Miami showed on and off last round!

dubin: They’ll try to ride the Jayson and Jaylen Tough Shot Express, presumably. They sometimes devolve into that even when things are going well.

zatzman: As much as I love Boston’s defense, I’m not sure the Tough Shot Express is beating these Warriors. Kyrie Irving isn’t walking through that door.

james.jackson: Neither is Bob Cousy!

zatzman: lollllll

dubin: [insert Kyrie has only met one kind of shot he won’t take joke here]

james.jackson: Oh, you’re good, Jared. Very good.

sara.ziegler: Ooof

dre.waters: Everything’s coming full circle. We’re back to Warriors 75+ percent chance of winning! Love to see it. 

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

All right, I can’t let y’all go without getting you on the record: Who’s winning this thing? Give me the champ and number of games it will take.

james.jackson: Warriors in six.

dre.waters: Before I make my prediction, I’d like to point out that I have been wrong on every Finals prediction I’ve made since I joined these chats …

dubin: I’m not much for predictions, folks, but to paraphrase a great philosopher: One of these teams is going to win this series, and the other will almost certainly not.

zatzman: I started out wanting to predict Boston, but this chat made me a little more skeptical. Maybe Golden State in seven? I don’t feel good about it.

dre.waters: The weather’s nice on this side, Louis. Dubs in five, because I can’t help but be a fan lol.

zatzman: So we have Dubs in five, Dubs in six, Dubs in seven and abstain? Time to defenestrate the model for real!

sara.ziegler: All right, I can’t let this stand.

I’m gonna stick with RAPTOR and say Celtics in six.

Company Woman right here.

dre.waters: EWWW, Sara … it’s not too late.

Come to the dark side.

dubin: These games start too late.

dre.waters: ^^^^^ THIS.

zatzman: Sara defending the model from this chat:

dre.waters: LMAO

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among Warriors rotation players with at least 1,200 minutes played.

  2. Among lineups with at least 50 minutes played.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

James Jackson is a Florida A&M graduate from South Florida. He has covered the NBA since 2014 with stops at ESPN and other platforms. He firmly believes a good baseline fadeaway can solve just about any problem.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

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