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What Are Boston Celtics' & Golden State Warriors' Do-or-Die Finals Lineups Right Now?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured Columnist IVJune 8, 2022

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Crunch time has yet to take center stage during the 2022 NBA Finals. Officially, anyway.

Inevitably, though, this will change. And when it does, who will the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors lean on to get them by?

These two teams have played around 20 seconds in which the differential between them was no greater than five points inside the final five minutes. This brief stretch came in Game 1, amid Beantown's raging fourth-quarter comeback, which featured plenty of high-leverage moments and, therefore, some clues as to how both sides will handle themselves during traditional, by-the-book clutch time.

To be sure: Spitting out lineups for the Celtics and Warriors to rely upon when it matters most isn't only about weighting a snapshot of basketball. It's about the series in its entirety—what we've seen thus far, what's worked versus what hasn't and which unit is best built to navigate whatever combination the other team might roll out.

What Should Be the Celtics' Go-to Closing Lineup?

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This should be a completely situational, if not overly complicated, question for the Celtics to answer. Their propensity for dual-big lineups and the ease with which they can pivot to five-out arrangements give them an armory of capable possibilities.

Theoretically.

Sticking with the starting five—Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Robert Williams III—has quickly devolved into a no-go. That quintet was outscored by eight points over 14 minutes in Game 1 and then posted a minus-four through 10 minutes in Game 2.

Its matchup with Golden State's own open five—Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney—has been even worse. The Warriors' starters own a 19-point advantage across a 21-minute sample while downing 45.5 percent of their three-pointers and grabbing an annihilatory 46.2 percent of their own misses.

Golden State's offensive rebounding rate during this time is a gargantuan concern for Boston. What's the point of playing big if you're not capping second-chance opportunities? Mat Issa of The Analyst perfectly encapsulated the dilemma facing the Celtics in the larger context of this series:

"Well, as we saw in the Memphis series in which the Warriors topped the bigger, more athletic Grizzlies on the offensive glass, the group unlocks these second chances by leveraging their all-time exterior gravity. The attention Curry, Thompson and Jordan Poole demand from behind the arc stretches defenses out, leaving cracks for Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney to slither into for offensive rebounds (plus, the way the ball bounces off 3-point misses is much more difficult to predict than shots closer to the rim)."

Boston's performance in the Starters vs. Starters minutes is especially problematic given these stretches don't even represent the spaciest version of the Warriors. Golden State can put Green in the corner, but a frontline of he and Looney still counts as fielding two non-shooters. If the Celtics can't buy time for the Horford-RW3 duo against that group, they can't hope for better results when the Warriors sub out Looney for Poole, Otto Porter Jr. or Gary Payton II.

Pulling RW3 and keeping the other four on the court is Boston's most logical option—and might even be an adjustment they must consider to start games.

Horford is moving better away from the basket than his younger frontcourt sidekick, who suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee at the end of March. As Basketball News' Nekias Duncan noted during an exhaustive breakdown of RW3's struggles this series:

"The Celtics have taken their chances with Andrew Wiggins as the Williams matchup, an option that's been mentioned in this space before the Finals began. In theory, Wiggins is the safest bet. He doesn't screen as often (or as well) as Looney. He doesn't offer the same blend of screening and playmaking as Draymond does. He surely doesn't shoot as well as the Curry/Thompson/Poole triumvirate. You worry about Wiggins as a driver, but it gives you a lesser-of-evils vibe. The Warriors have already started to poke at that matchup."

Golden State is averaging 1.13 points per possession as a team when RW3 registers as a defender on Wiggins. Boston has not been any better off when RW3 spends time on Looney (1.50 points per possession allowed) and doesn't seem inclined to test him against Draymond. Unless the Warriors decide to close with Andre Iguodala, who missed Game 2, the Celtics may find this just isn't an RW3 series.

Head coach Ime Udoka may actually already be there. RW3 tallied just 14 minutes during Boston's 107-88 loss in Game 2 after going for 24 minutes during their Game 1 victory. And if we're operating under the assumption the Horford-RW3 frontcourt is untenable in crunch time, the Celtics don't have anywhere else to turn other than Derrick White.

Sure, they can try preserving the dual-big look with Grant Williams or Daniel Theis. That's not very palatable. Grant Williams has played three minutes with the other four starters in this series, and it hasn't gone particularly well. Boston, meanwhile, hasn't tested out a Horford-Theis pairing—which is probably the right call.

The White-plus-starters combo was instrumental to Boston's Game 1 victory, outscoring the Warriors by 13 points in seven minutes. It didn't fare as well in Game 2 (minus-eight in eight minutes), but the Celtics didn't get to that fivesome nearly early enough, either.

Opting for White over RW3 juices up Boston's defensive mobility on the perimeter, and the former takes enough threes for the resulting quintet to check the five-out box. Perhaps the Warriors demand the Celtics travel a different path if they close with both Draymond and Looney. But even then, Boston is likely better off trying to capitalize on the offensive mismatches created in Small vs. Big situations.

Verdict: Boston's go-to closing lineup should be Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford.

What Should be the Warriors' Go-to Closing Lineup?

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For all the ado over the Warriors' "Poole Party" lineup, their most talked-about small-ball unit hasn't played an integral part in this series. The combination of Curry, Poole, Thompson, Wiggins and Green was a minus-nine through three minutes during Game 1 and then didn't see the court in Game 2.

That isn't necessarily telltale of anything. Poole proved to be a liability at both ends in Game 1 but was significantly better on offense during the latter half of Game 2. If the Warriors faced any resistance from the Celtics whatsoever after the third quarter, they might have revisited the Poole Party makeup.

Closing with the starters is, of course, in play. That fivesome is a plus-19 through 29 minutes in this series—success dramatic enough to be Golden State's default crunch-time crutch.

But holding serve with Green and Looney up front loses luster if Boston, as already suggested and expected, closes with Smart, White, Brown, Tatum and Horford. Golden State has almost entirely avoided using both Green and Looney against that five-out gaggle. Looney specifically has seen his time on the bench just about perfectly mirror the stretches in which Boston goes with Horford and four perimeter players.

This will lead many back to the Poole Party clique. But the Warriors have other configurations in mind.

Curry, GP2, Wiggins, Porter and Green was the Warriors' second-most-used lineup in Game 2 and delivered molten-hot results across an eight-minute sample. It's hard to envision Thompson riding the bench during crunch time, but GP2 offers more defensive pressure at this point, and such an awkward call gets a tad easier if Klay isn't raining hellfire upon Boston.

Jackson Frank @jackfrank_jjf

Really liked the two-way juice of the Steph-GP2-Wiggins-OPJ-Dray lineup last night. Warriors were +9 during its 8 minutes together. Good mix of offensive and defensive personnel.

The Warriors also tried GP2-plus-starters in Game 2, as well as the super-small combination of Curry, Poole, GP2, Thompson and Green. The latter seems too nuclear for the highest-stakes possessions; that's a lot of size to give up on the perimeter, and Wiggins is almost a nonnegotiable inclusion relative to how much time he logs opposite Tatum.

Remove sentiment from the equation, and the Curry-GP2-Wiggins-Porter-Green lineup oozes the most appeal. It gives the Warriors four shooters around Draymond—Payton hit 35.8 percent of his 120 three-point attempts this season—while still playing four of their five best defenders (GP2, Wiggins, Porter, Green). But sidelining both Poole and Thompson adds a layer of combustibility.

Poole is the team's second-best off-the-dribble creator. Thompson is its second-best shooter. There is too much offensive variability in a closing lineup without either of them, one in which Wiggins takes on the second-best-shot-creator role.

Turning to the GP2-plus-starters model makes the most sense. GP2 can guard up and won't be targeted like Poole on defense, and the Warriors should get more than enough supplementary creation from Thompson and Wiggins to protect the offense against sloggy stretches.

Verdict: Golden State's go-to closing lineup should be Stephen Curry, Gary Payton II, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to his Hardwood Knocks podcast.

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