Jayson Tatum's Celtics Can Give Steph's Warriors Fits LeBron's Cavs Couldn't

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 30, 2022

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 16: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics drives to the basket during the game against the Golden State Warriors on MARCH 16, 2022 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have seen a lot during a dynasty that is now threatening to span a decade. They've played by far the most high-stakes series and squared off with the widest variety of superstars, MVPs and would-be dethroners during their six Finals trips in eight years.

But they've never seen anything quite like these Boston Celtics.

Every opponent brings unique challenges, and every playoff series is different. But as the Warriors advanced through this postseason, their history prepared them at every step.

Nikola Jokic is on a level all his own as a point center who operates as his team's offensive fulcrum, but the Dubs successfully applied many of the lessons they learned facing peak Marc Gasol in the 2015 West semifinals to the Joker.

When the Warriors faced Gasol's old Memphis Grizzlies in the second round, they had to wrangle a dynamic, game-changing point guard in Ja Morant (until he went down with a knee injury). That might have intimidated a less experienced team than Golden State, which bested Russell Westbrook and his extreme athleticism in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.

The Athletic Bay Area @TheAthleticSF

Warriors are giving Ja Morant the same playoff treatment they gave to prime Russell Westbrook in 2016 https://t.co/gt9U03dLz6

And Morant, for the record, did not have 27-year-old four-time scoring champion Kevin Durant at his side.

The latter part of the 2022 Grizzlies series saw Memphis go big and lean on its rugged defense. Golden State adjusted and advanced, perhaps because those old 2015 Grizzlies were even bigger and more physical than the modern version. The OKC frontcourts featuring a young Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Durant also gave the Warriors core and its coaching staff a primer on how to handle a massive size and athleticism disadvantage.

Finally, Luka Doncic and his heliocentric genius arrived in the conference finals. Good thing Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevon Looney and head coach Steve Kerr had already eliminated an even more lethal version of that team four years ago. The 65-win Houston Rockets of 2017-18 featured a prime James Harden and a switch-happy defense that pushed Golden State to the brink—but not over it.


Luka reminds Steve Kerr of peak James Harden 👀 @kevinarnovitz on how the Warriors can handle Doncic on @ESPNPlus ✍️ https://t.co/IIiH1jhZUo https://t.co/xoxzU2Wuqd

Singular superstars no longer faze a Warriors team that took three out of four Finals from LeBron James, perhaps the greatest postseason test-prep tool of them all. A squad that survives the tactical brilliance and physical onslaught of James can confidently face off with anyone and say, "We've seen worse."

Through those five consecutive trips to the Finals from 2015 to 2019, the Warriors core went toe to toe with the best the league had to offer—in all shapes and sizes. They derailed a potential dynasty in Oklahoma City, turned Grit and Grind to dust in Memphis, prevented Harden from one-man-showing his way to a ring in Houston and denied James the extra titles that would have put the GOAT debate to bed.

What could these Celtics possibly offer that Golden State hasn't seen (and solved) before?

Start with the numbers.

Boston's net rating this season was a plus-7.4. That's not the best full-season figure these Warriors have faced. The 2016 Thunder matched that number exactly, and the 2018 Rockets were even better at plus-8.4.

However, we know the overall stats don't produce an accurate picture of the Celtics as they exist today. Remember, this team got off to a stumbling start and didn't find its stride until head coach Ime Udoka's schemes sank in and Marcus Smart took over the point on a full-time basis.

After Jan. 1, the Celtics destroyed the league, running up an obscene plus-12.7 net rating that dwarfs anything Warriors playoff foes of the past ever mustered.

Numbers aside, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are a one-two wing punch the Warriors have never really seen. They're the predictable result of late-2010s Golden State forcing opponents to stockpile as many two-way, weakness-free wings as possible. Those have always been the key to defending the Warriors' attack. The Tatum-Brown duo also brings a youth-experience combination the Dubs have yet to face. Brown is 25, and Tatum is 24, yet they already have seven conference finals berths between them.

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are the 2nd pair of Celtics teammates to each score 30+ points in back to back team games, joining Larry Bird and Kevin McHale (January 6-8, 1988). https://t.co/mh32TEaQIy

But that's not even where the real novelty (or terror, if you're a Warriors supporter) arises. The true threat is in the way Boston is an amalgamation of so many of the top squads Golden State has seen over the years.

The Celtics were the best defense in the league this past season. And though the Warriors have survived elite individual stoppers in the past, they've never seen a collective group with that distinction in the Finals. What's more, Marcus Smart is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year—basically the ideal weapon to set against Curry, Thompson, Jordan Poole and anyone else with designs on scoring.

Golden State has played against plenty of former DPOYs in past postseasons—Gasol in 2015, Rudy Gobert in 2017 and Kawhi Leonard in 2019—but this will be the first time tangling with one that currently holds the trophy. Combined with Tatum, Brown and Boston's mobile bigs, Smart gives his team the best chance anyone's ever had at putting a stop to the Warriors' three-ring circus of off-ball movement and quick-trigger passing.

In addition to ideal personnel, the Celtics also employ a switching scheme that has historically given the Warriors fits. But while those old Rockets teams switched so frequently in part because they had shaky defenders to hide, the Celtics employ the NBA's switch-heaviest approach because they're great at it.

Per ESPN's Kevin Pelton, "No other team switched more frequently than the Celtics during the regular season, and they rank second in frequency (44%) so far during the playoffs."

Boston brings the heft of past Grizzlies and Thunder teams, the pick-and-roll-crippling switchability of the Rockets and none of the weak points any of those opponents possessed.

And for all the intimidating dominance LeBron brought to the table in those four Finals tilts, his Cavs never had the stopping power of these Celtics. Cleveland's best defense during its repeat dates with the Warriors ranked 10th (2016) and was as low as 29th (2018).

The Warriors built their impressive resume by facing down new challenges. There was no blueprint for beating the Harden-led Rockets, the James-led Cavs or Thunder teams Russ and KD captained until the Dubs sketched one themselves. The Celtics' novelty doesn't make them unbeatable, and we should expect Golden State to locate and attack pressure points—like the Celtics' relatively suspect offense, which bogged down late and nearly cost it Game 7 against the Miami Heat in the East finals.

The Warriors finished second in defensive efficiency to the Celtics this year, which means they'll still have a chance to succeed even if Smart and Co. put the clamps on.

The Kerr-era Dubs will head into their sixth Finals with a depth and breadth of experience few have ever had, yet they could quickly find themselves searching for answers that their past can't provide.

You could frame Boston as a new threat or a combination of many old and familiar ones. Either way, the Warriors are in for a fight unlike any they've seen.


Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.