NBA Finals: Scouts break down the Warriors-Celtics matchup

Warriors guard Stephen Curry and Celtics forward Jaylen Brown battle for a loose ball.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry and Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, battling for a loose ball, figure to be key players for each team in the NBA Finals. Can Curry recapture Finals magic? Can Brown rise to the occasion?
(Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

When the NBA Finals begin Thursday in San Francisco, it will mark a return to familiar ground for Golden State’s championship-tested core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

Yet for their three championships together with coach Steve Kerr, those Warriors never played for a title while all 30-plus years old, nor surrounded by their current supporting cast.

Likewise their opponent, the Boston Celtics, boasts a trio as playoff-tested as they come.

Yet in five seasons together and two previous trips to the Eastern Conference finals, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart never advanced to the championship stage until now, where they will be guided by first-year coach Ime Udoka — who has Finals and Olympics coaching experience as an assistant, but never as a team’s main voice.

To peel back the curtain on the angles, adjustments and key players to watch during the Finals, The Times surveyed NBA insiders — three team scouts and one team executive — to analyze the league’s biggest stage on a granular level, with each granted anonymity in exchange for their candor.

The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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Who is the most important player in the series?

The executive: “Jaylen Brown. If he plays as clearly the third-best player [of the series] and pushes against the top two for five or six of the seven games, Boston probably wins.”

Scout No. 1: “[Golden State wing] Andrew Wiggins could change the entire complexion of this series. If you watched him play defense [against Dallas in the West finals], I’ve never seen him defend like that.”

Warriors guard Stephen Curry puts the ball on the court as he sized up Celtics defender Jayson Tatum.
Two keys to the NBA Finals: Can Stephen Curry, left, create some magic and can Jayson Tatum play more consistently on an elite level?
(Mary Schwalm / Associated Press)

Scout No. 2: “Curry. His movement, his threes, the threat of his threes, it opens up everything. … It’s his year, he wants this Finals MVP. This is his stage, no KD [Kevin Durant], no LeBron [James] and he’s heard all the noise. I don’t know if we’re going to have a Steph like we’ve had in the past where he kind of fades in the Finals. I think he’s going to make his mark.”

Scout No. 3: “Tatum. He has to carry the Celtics’ offense. … I think he’s got to be the best player in the series and he’s capable of it. [Celtics center] Robert Williams would be my biggest X-factor. Defensively, he’s such a monster.”

Golden State will win if …

The executive: “If they find ways to hide [reserve guard] Jordan Poole defensively, so he can make the offensive impact he made two series ago. They win if [reserve guard] Gary Payton II is able to guard credibly one of the two guys [Tatum and Brown], who are way bigger than him, for long stretches.”


Scout No. 1: “Jayson did a great job in the Miami series of balancing scoring and making plays, and Jayson is not an elite passer but he can make simple reads. … If Wiggins does a good job of containing Tatum and they’re not going to double that much, then it’s going to be a much better chance for Golden State to win.”

Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins plays tight defense against Mavericks guard Luka Doncic.
Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins, defending Mavericks guard Luka Doncic in the Western Conference finals, has become a solid two-way wing for Golden State and will be a key in the series.
(Jed Jacobsohn / Associated Press)

Scout No. 2: “What the Warriors do is they like to pick on your weakest defender. … Whereas Boston, they don’t really have a weak link — maybe Robert Williams, we’ll see if he can guard on the perimeter. I don’t think they want to go against a switching lineup of Smart, Brown, Tatum and [Celtics center Al] Horford. So I think they’re just going to try to outrun those guys.”

Scout No. 3: “If they shoot 37% or better from three.”

Boston will win if …

The executive: “[Tatum and Brown] have to be the first- and third-best players in the series.”

Scout No. 1: “It’s going to come down to how Golden State defends Boston’s strengths. What Miami did was put Kyle Lowry on Tatum and then help and bring doubles. … Tatum is a great player but I think sometimes we get caught up in the great games he has but you kind of ignore the clunkers and he has too many of those to where you can’t put him at the same level of some of the top guys.”

Celtics guard Derrick White (9) blocks a shot by Heat guard Kyle Lowry as Boston center Robert Williams III provides help.
Celtics guard Derrick White (9) blocks a shot by Heat guard Kyle Lowry as Celtics center Robert Williams III provides help. Bostons defense has been a difference-maker this postseason.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

Scout No. 2: “If they stay fundamentally sound defensively as a team. … I think people will look at Boston and see they have the No. 1 defense, and they have great individual defenders but against the Warriors that doesn’t really matter and I don’t know if people realize that. It’s not like Steph lines you up and plays one-on-one; he moves so much that it kind of negates the individual defender’s importance.”

Scout No. 3: “If the Warriors feel them defensively. [Boston is] so freaking good on that side of the ball. Their wings cover everything. … If they can get away with their physicality, they’ll win.”

What should we expect from coaches Steve Kerr and Ime Udoka?

Executive: “[Boston] just beat Milwaukee and Miami, the two last Finals participants, in Game 7s. They’re battle-tested. … The way Ime has gotten Tatum to become the two-way player to the level that everyone thought he could be, but get him to live it on a nightly basis, has been phenomenal. Ime’s calm demeanor has been amazing.”

Scout No. 1: “I’m sure Steve has an advantage having coached and won championships — it is a big deal. But I think Ime is a good enough coach to not be fazed by that. He’s done a great job. [Miami’s Erik] Spoelstra’s arguably the best coach in the league and I thought from the coaching standpoint in that East finals, it was pretty even.”

Celtics coach Ime Udoka talks to guard Marcus Smart along the sideline during a break in play.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka talks to Marcus Smart along the sideline during a break in play. The first-year head coach and veteran guard have been integral to Boston reaching the NBA Finals.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

Scout No. 2: “It will be interesting what style of play Boston goes with. I personally think playing up-tempo transition, fastbreak basketball against the Warriors is like a death trap. … I wonder if they will fall into some uncharacteristic traits just because of the magnitude of the moment.”


Scout No. 3: “Two very different styles. … Boston wants to beat you 90-85 and Golden State wants to beat you 130-125 even though Golden State’s defense is good. Is Game 1 in the 100s or is it in the 90s? That’ll tell you a lot of what the series is.”

What other factors could determine the 2022 title?

The executive: “Are they going to try to play Klay on [Tatum or Brown]? Klay doesn’t move like he once did. … Does [Celtics forward] Grant Williams have the same effect as a defensive rover when he’s being spread out to a higher level? Can Robert Williams take advantage around the rim if the Warriors go completely small? Can [Warriors center] Kevon Looney have the same impact when he has size guarding him?”

Scout No. 1: “It’s going to be a tougher series for Boston, in my opinion. They beat a Brooklyn team that was just a mess. They beat Milwaukee, which is a great series and great win but they didn’t have Khris Middleton. And then Miami didn’t really have Tyler Herro. How are they going to react to playing a team that is firing on all cylinders, plus [the Warriors] are rested?”

Scout No. 2: “The wild card is Klay.”