Five things the Boston Celtics must do to beat the Golden State Warriors

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Oddsmakers — which also means the general betting public — are backing Golden State in the Finals. Our partner, PointsBet, has installed the Warriors as -150 favorites (the Celtics are +125).

The computer models love the Celtics. For example, 538’s model (which has not been high on the Warriors all season) gives Boston an 80% chance of winning banner No. 18.

Personally, I see this as a tight series, going at least six games. I am picking the Warriors in seven, but it’s not a pick I make with tremendous confidence — the Celtics can win this series.

However, if the Celtics are going to raise another banner to the rafter, they need these five things to happen.

1) Boston’s defense has to hold Golden State in check

On March 16, the Boston Celtics went into the Chase Center and shut down the Warriors, holding them under a point per possession (96.2 offensive rating for Golden State). One has to be careful reading too much into a regular season game — this is the one where Marcus Smart dove for a ball and rolled up Stephen Curry‘s foot, meaning the Warriors’ leading scorer played fewer than 14 minutes — but in the minutes that mattered, the Celtics defense was a problem for the Warriors.

Historically, switching defenses give Golden State the most trouble. Boston is the switch happiest defense in the NBA this season, but they do it because they have five quality defenders on the court — they are not hiding anyone. Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart will likely start on Curry, but forcing a switch to get Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, or Robert Williams III presents its own challenges.

This is where the question of health comes in. Both Smart and Williams were slowed against the Heat by injuries, if they are not 100% it gives the Warriors a place to attack — and they will be relentless about it.

The Warriors’ constant motion offense — on and off the ball — is a different level of challenge for the Celtics. This isn’t Jimmy Butler or Giannis Antetokounmpo in isolation over and over, the Warriors have multiple shot creators with Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole, and once they have a team scrambling in rotation the ball flies around to the open man.

One stat to watch: Points in the paint. Or, more specifically, shots at the rim. These were two of the best teams in the league this season at keeping teams away from getting shots in the restricted area; if one team starts getting inside and getting points, it will signal a defense breaking down.

The Celtics have better personnel to deal with the Warriors’ attack than any team Golden State has faced. If Boston can force Curry and Poole to create shots just for themselves and score on jumpers — but not get the ball flying around to other open shooters — they can live with the results. And it may be enough.

2) Which team gets buckets in transition?

Boston looked its best against Miami when it got out and ran (we saw that in stretches of Game 7).

In their four playoff losses, the Warriors have averaged 16.3 turnovers a game.

In a series where points will be at a premium, if the Warriors get sloppy with the ball and let the Celtics get out and run, it will cost them. The Warriors’ style of play lends itself to some turnovers, but they have to be careful against an elite defense than can make things much more difficult.

The reverse is true as well. We all saw what happened when the Celtics — particularly Tatum and Brown — got sloppy with their handles, turned the ball over and let the Heat get out and run. Now substitute in Curry and Thompson on those breaks — it’s a recipe for disaster in Boston. Those 11-0 runs the Heat put together will be 17-0 runs at the hands of the Warriors — and teams don’t recover from those and beat Golden State.

The key to this series may be this simple: If the Warriors are forced to go against a set, halfcourt Celtics defense, they will struggle to score consistently. If they can get out and run, if they can get offense early in the clock on quick pin-downs and other actions — running off Boston misses — they can make it tough for the Celtics to keep up.

3) Jayson Tatum takes a star turn

This is the stage where the biggest stars cement their legacy. If there is any doubt about that, take a look at Stephen Curry and what three rings — and some elite Finals performances — have done to elevate him to All-Time great status. (Although he still doesn’t have a Finals MVP trophy, if the Warriors win there will be tremendous pressure on the voters to give him one.)

Tatum finished sixth in NBA MVP voting this season. If he wants to be considered in the Curry/Kevin Durant/Giannis Antetokounmpo tier of players, he has to show out with a huge series on the biggest stage. At this moment, a 10-point Game 3 or disappearing in the fourth quarter of Game 6 is magnified — and not forgotten.

Andrew Wiggins will draw the Tatum assignment to start the series, and he did as good a job as could be expected on Luka Doncic in the last series. Wiggins will be asked to repeat that effort.

For the Celtics to win, Tatum has to be the Finals MVP. He has to be that guy.

That said, he can do it through playmaking as well. If the Warriors throw everything at slowing Tatum, Brown and Smart have to step up.

4) Boston has to target Curry and Poole

While it will be difficult for the Warriors to easily target a weak link in the Celtics’ defense (assuming they are healthy), there are clear targets for the Celtics to go at in pick-and-roll coverages.

That starts with Curry. For too many fans, Curry has an undeserved reputation as a poor defender (going back to LeBron James hunting him in the Finals), and that’s not true. He’s a solid defender, especially in a team setting, but he’s often the weakest link on the court for a Warriors team whose defense is often overlooked (they had the best or second-best defense in the league, depending on your advanced metric of choice this regular season).

The reason to target Curry is to wear him down a little, maybe get him in foul trouble, and just limit his effectiveness. Curry will put out the effort, and the Warriors are great about helping him with late doubles, but he will be tested.

Poole is the weakest defensive link in the Warriors rotation, and he is an offensive spark plug, if the Celtics can play him off the court at points it’s an advantage. Boston needs to be ruthless about this.

5) Can Boston show poise in the big moments

Boston had the chance to close out Miami at home in Game 6 yet watched Jimmy Butler rip it out of their hands as the Celtics’ depth came up far short. Boston had a double-digit lead deep in the fourth quarter of Game 7 in Miami and watched the Heat go on an 11-0 run that put Miami within a made 3 of very possibly being the team still playing. Boston lost Game 5 at home to Milwaukee in the previous series.

Boston has had moments of lost poise all playoffs — that can’t happen against Golden State. The Warriors are too good, and they are exceptional at burying teams who lose focus for a few minutes. The Celtics have to take advantage of all their opportunities, because there will not be many of them.

Are these Celtics ready for that moment?

They need to be, or this is all over.