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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

[SPORTS ANALYSIS] How did Golden State Warriors bag the 2022 NBA Championship? plus Season Recap

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It was a typical hot Friday afternoon pre-lunch. Basketball junkies and others who seemed to like the game of basketball this month were on their screens, tablets or phones. Same goes for me, except with the addition of office documents that kept piling up. I have encircled my phone calendar on June 17, 2022 (Philippine date) because it’s Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals. Warriors vs. Celtics. Chasing history for both franchises.

As a student of the game, I objectively thought that the Celtics would still have that “one last punch” as Game 6 will be played at the legendary TD Garden. The decorated franchise would not easily go down without a fight. They are well coached, hungry and young. However, deep inside in my heart, I want the Warriors to finish the series. I want them to prove naysayers wrong. My heart was right; my objectivity was wrong.

The Boston Celtics came out of the East boasting top-ranked defense, led by the DPOY Marcus Smart. They can quickly recover switches, they are long, athletic and gritty. Many fans touted the Celtics as the champions in this year’s Finals because why not? It’s not a silly choice, to be honest. They are well coached, they have the offensive weapons led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and defensive personnel in Smart, Horford and Williams, to back that up. Their interior defense is superb because of their prized young center, Robert Williams III a.k.a Time Lord. He averages 2.4 blocks, entering game 6. He can cover the perimeter unlike any other bigs. He can stretch out his arms so that 3 pointers would not come easy. Their perimeter defense is otherworldly because their perimeter defenders are not easily exposed in switches. They can hold their own and the most effective 1-on-1 defense I have seen for a long time. It was effective against Brooklyn, which the Celtics easily swept. Arguably the most skilled offensive player in Kevin Durant looked helpless because of this Boston defense. 

Given with the heaps of praises that I enumerated above, why did the Celtics fail to capture their 18thChampionship? Well, for starters, they were up against the most complex offensive scheme they would be facing. The Gold Standard. The Golden State Warriors.

Golden State Warriors innovated the free flowing offense. They have mastered the art of extra passes, they love to run around half-court, their schemes are not easily readable, in sum, they are complex. This would not be possible if Steph Curry is not around. Their team revolves around the 2x NBA MVP, 8x all-star, 2x scoring champ, Kobe Bryant ASG MVP, 1st WCF MVP, and eventually a 4x Champion and a Finals MVP. 

Before making my 2022 Finals analysis, let me take you back to memory lane…

Opening Salvo

The Golden State Warriors tasted their 4th championship in 2015. The Steph-Klay-Dray era. Under the tutelage of Steve Kerr, this core Warriors became a juggernaut. 

Steve Kerr is the perfect coach. After spending time with Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, he has the brains of the most effective and dangerous combination of offense. The triangle by Jackson, and the free-flow basketball by Popovich. The Bulls and Lakers hoisted trophies by reason of “the triangle”. The Spurs were a dynasty by reason of their beautiful extra passes and unpredictable schemes. Legends were born because of these. Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, and Timmy. Imagine integrating that into a cohesive and unselfish group and there you have it— a Golden Dynasty.

The Downfall

The Warriors followed their 2015 championship with a 73-9 record. The best regular season record to date. However, they fell short against the Cleveland Cavaliers, after being up 3-1 in that series. They retooled and signed Kevin Durant in free agency. Won the next two championships before falling against the Toronto Raptors in 2019, led by Kawhi Leonard. (I still believe that even if Durant was injured, had Klay did not suffer ACL in Game 6, the Warriors would win). After that season, it all went downhill from there.

The basketball world all saw Klay suffer from ACL in Game 6. Kevin Durant left for the Brooklyn Nets but incentivized it by a sign-and-trade deal which dealt D’Angelo Russell to the Warriors.  The following season, the Warriors have the worst record in the league, attributed by lack of depth, Steph’s hand injury after playing 5 games, and Green’s bad back. During mid-season, they dealt Russell for Andrew Wiggins and a first round pick (became the Kuminga pick). After their worst season, they have managed to land #2 pick the next draft. The Warriors selected Memphis Center James Wiseman but showed no returns (yet) because of injuries.

The next offseason, the fans in Bay Area were excited because after a long, forgettable season, Klay would now return and the core would continue their roadshow. But, here comes another disappointment. Before entering the 2020 season, Klay Thompson suffered an Achilles injury which would keep him out for another year. It was Steph and Dray’s job to keep things afloat. Steph became an MVP candidate, thanks to the numbers he put up that season. Despite all that, they failed to get out of the play-in tournament. They fell to the Grizzlies 117-112. Doubters were the loudest. Haters were the happiest. But Steph remained optimistic and in that presser he uttered the words “You don’t want to see us next year.” The sun’s about to rise for the Warriors.

The “proving-point” season

The next season, James Wiseman, their prized rookie was still suffering from a knee injury. Klay was still out for the first few weeks, but soon returned on January 10 against Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors started strong (18-2). Steph was graced as the best shooter in the game, after being number #1 in the all-time 3pt list (beat Ray Allen’s record at the Mecca). Things were looking good.

Then, the playoffs started. Steph has just returned from a 12-game absence due to a foot injury. They have managed to beat the Joker-led Nuggets 4-1, humbled the loud and young Grizzlies 4-2, held Luka to earth and the Mavs 4-1. Steph was awarded as the inaugural Earvin “Magic” Johnson WCF MVP after dispatching the Mavericks. Then, the Finals.

The never ending Steph doubters

Before anything else, let me have this opening: Steph is already an all-time great. He’s a top 15 player of all time before this Finals. Many doubters have their own narrative in discrediting a “once in a lifetime” player. Many “analysts” won’t have Steph passing their eye-test. THEY ARE WRONG. I always believe that once a hater, always a hater. LeBron have his haters even up to this day. I seriously don’t know why would someone hate a generational talent. Maybe they’re watching a different sport? Maybe they’re not used that their guys from the 80s or 90s get kicked out of the VIP Club. Appreciate greatness while we can.

One dent in Steph’s resume was his lack of a Finals MVP. Remember, Iggy was the MVP in their 2015 ‘ship, but some folks say that Steph was robbed. They had their case and objectively, they might be true. The guy averaged 26-5-5. Iggy was just the “LeBron stopper” after holding the King to 36 ppg. Duh.

Their next two, it was KD being rewarded by the Bill Russel FMVP. KD played great. Hands down. But Steph did not play bad either. Let me say this again, one thing’s clear (and a segue): KD joined the wagon. The Warriors won two without him. They don’t need him, after all (forgive me for putting that one but I just can’t let that slide). 

The 2022 NBA Finals

Going back to the question, what went “wrong” to the Celtics? Why did they fail to win this year?

Let me try to dissect it with three important points.

First, they were up against a potent offense. All thanks to Steph. By his presence alone, more looks are available. In Games 1 and 3, where the Celtics won, they covered Steph right after stepping the half-court. They will put Smart on him and tried to clamped him down. Robert Williams was effective against Steph even at the 3pt line. The Celtics, particularly in Game 1, just shot better. They have the momentum after finishing the Heat, 2 days before playing the Finals. Horford, Smart and White made big buckets. The Warriors were just overwhelmed by the Celtics’ defense. In Game 3, at the TD Garden, Jaylen Brown was sensational. Tatum kinda’ get his shot going. They fed of the fans’ energy. Nice win. But things are starting to click for the Warriors. During the last quarter, when the Warriors made a comeback, Steph has been attacking Horford on switches and that trend continued.

During Game 4, when everything was on the line, Steph played sensational basketball and cemented his legacy as arguably one of the TOP 10 PLAYERS OF ALL TIME. Putting up 43 points and 10 rebounds against the highly-touted Boston defense. What went wrong to the Boston? They kept sending Horford on the perimeter. On a switch, Horford drop-covered. If he stepped closer, Steph would attack the rim. If he steps backwards, Steph would shoot a three. That’s the gravity Steph brings. 

Let me be a nerd here (my apologies): If Horford “man-up” Steph, like I said above, Steph can either attack the rim or shoot a three. If help defense comes, Steph would throw the ball to Draymond Green and the latter would kick out to a player who can drive to the basket because the lane is now open. That scheme continued on until Game 6. 

Second, the Warriors’ defense. Many people do not realize that the Warriors had one of the best defenses in the post-season. The Celtics thought that by exposing Curry on defense, they can easily score. NO. This was the area where most basketball fanatics were wrong. Steph played stellar defense. Many footages would show that Steph held his own. Before, the crack on this Golden State team was Steph’s defense. Now, he bulked up, stood his ground and no longer a liability. Do not get me wrong. Steph is not a two-way player—well, not Kawhi-esque or up to Smart’s standards, but he is no longer a liability. The Warriors capitalized on that. Even if the offensive player could blow by Steph, the help defense would come around. Be it Green or even GPII. Unlike the Warriors, the Celtics were not a potent offense. Their main guns were Tatum and Brown—which comes to my next point.

Jayson Tatum played bad, well, bad to his standards. The pundits already crowned him as the next big thing, after dispatching the Nets, Bucks and Heat— all of which Tatum played stellar basketball. But the Warriors is a different beast. The X-Factor in this series was Andrew Wiggins. He was the most consistent player all series long and played great defense against Tatum. Tatum looked helpless while Wiggins looked different, after being tagged as a “bum” or even a “bust”. Wiggins proved everyone wrong. His laid-back personality has nothing to do with the defense he played. Thanks to you, Maple Jordan.

Third, the turnovers. Ime Udoka inserted Smart as their primary ball handler, following the trade that sent Schroeder to the Rockets, then getting White from the Spurs. It was great and translated to a 2nd seed in the East. It was all “cakes and flowers” in the Eastern Conference, following the wins from Nets, Bucks and Heat. But the story was different in the Finals. In Games 4,5, and 6, Boston almost averaged 20 turnovers per game. In Game 6 clincher, they had 22 turnovers. Tatum had 100 turnovers in the whole playoffs. That was a big factor in Golden State’s win. You cannot have a bunch of turnovers against this Warriors offense because they are going to make sure you’re going to pay. Smart was not a stable ball handler, unlike the likes of Brunson or Brogdon. He’s not a natural 1 but a hybrid 1 or 2 that can cover the perimeter. During crunch time, the Boston’s offense was discombobulated. They have shot ill-advised threes, unorganized and panicking. That was a game-changer.

Winding it up

To close, kudos to the Boston Celtics for putting up a great series. They have the potential for being a threat for years to come. Their core of Tatum and Brown only age 24 and 25, respectively. They have a great young coach in Ime Udoka— another one from Popovich coaching tree. They have a great center in Williams. They have tasted the defeat in a Finals and I am sure they would learn thing or two, to get over the hump.

For the Warriors, rejoice. Enjoy the festivities. I believe the dynasty will continue. They have young guns in Poole, Kuminga, and Wiseman. The core of Steph-Klay-Dray has a lot left in the tank. They have veteran presence. They have defense. They have good coaching in Kerr, Atkinson and Adams. They are the Gold Standard. Winning 4 Championships in 8 seasons.

For Steph haters, continue hating to your heart’s content. He’ll surely prove you wrong. AGAIN. Say what you want to say. He’s no longer Top 15. He’s Top 10-ALL TIME. And many will agree with me. Someone has to go out from the VIP Club. He has a great collection of hardware. He’s a culture changer. He’s an icon. He’s a legend. And he’s not over.

About the author: Atty. John Caleb Andal’s passion is writing sports articles while practicing law on the side.

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