Superstar Stephen Curry missed the playoffs for two consecutive years after winning three NBA championships and losing to Toronto Raptors in a closely fought NBA final in 2019. His sharpshooting colleague Klay Thompson missed both those years with two debilitating injuries — an ACL tear and an Achilles tear. Golden State Warriors also lost two-time finals MVP Kevin Durant in free agency to the Brooklyn Nets. Former finals MVP and veteran Andre Iguodala was let go, before he came back this season after a fruitless stint at Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat. Curry only had Draymond Green for company among the championship winning lot in his team the past two years when the Warriors missed the playoffs — they even finished last in the 2019-2020 NBA season.
The Warriors went through a barren period for two years to refurbish their young core, get Thompson back after an arduous rehabilitation programme, even as Curry and Green were back to their marauding best. Three significant additions — Andrew Wiggins via trade in 2021, another sharpshooter in guard Jordan Poole and a defensive ace in Gary Payton Jr — helped them get back to championship contention.
Yet, no one expected the Warriors to upend their challengers in the run-up to the NBA finals easily. Curry, Green and Thompson have had years of experience competing for the crown, but they have had lean years lately because of wear and tear. Phoenix Suns, which cruised through the regular season with the best record in the NBA were the fancied favourites to come out of the West. But a shock defeat to the Dallas Mavericks made the Warriors’ path to the finals easier.
The other finalist Boston Celtics had a tougher grind in the playoffs. They had to overcome the star-studded Brooklyn Nets, the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks and the supremely well-coached and combative Miami Heat. The Celtics managed to do so emphatically, riding on their young core of wing players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, besides defensive-minded stars in Marcus Smart (NBA defensive player of the year winner), veteran Al Horford and young center Robert Williams. The Celtics’ strong run to the finals, extending their league best record in the year 2022 on both defence and offence, in fact, made some analysts label them the favourites against the veteran Warriors.
The analysts who believed so were vindicated after the Celtics’ first game victory. Tatum was subdued, defended well by Wiggins — a feature of the whole series. But Brown attacked the rim, took audacious shots and was well helped by the support cast of Horford, shooting guard Derrick White and the Williamses.
But the Celtics had not reckoned with the explosion of Curry. Steph Curry is considered the best shooter to have ever played in the NBA. And that is not hyperbole and without reason. He has shot the most three pointers ever. He has probably the quickest release in shot-making — a trait that has endured as he reaches old age in NBA terms. He has the softest of touches near the rim and his ball handling remains pristine. He singlehandedly stretches the floor on the offensive end because of his ability to score from almost anywhere and he also manages to exhaust the opposing teams’ defence by his constant movement off the ball and his ability to score even in traffic through nimble footwork and increased strength. Combining his talent with non-stop hustle and his team playing unselfish basketball based on ball movement, screen setting and cuts thanks to good coaching by Steve Kerr and his assistants, the Warriors made the best out of them to leave the Celtics clueless as the series raged on.
Curry made merry in the finals averaging 31.2 points, six rebounds and five assists, scoring on 44% of his three-point shots (despite going 0-for-8 in Game 5) and carried Warriors in run after scoring run. Green had ups and downs but pulled up his socks for Game 5 and 6, orchestrating the offence by his passing abilities and remaining a bulwark on defence, taking on duties in both the paint and on the perimeter when the situation demanded. Thompson was far from his best, but his sharpshooting was on mark as he averaged 17 points (35% on 3 pointers). Poole’s marksmanship helped the Warriors too.
But their X factor was SF/PF Andrew Wiggins, who did yeoman service in slowing down Tatum and featuring as an efficient outlet on offence. With 18.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists, Wiggins was decisive for the Warriors who did not seem to miss the absence of Durant from their world-beating squad.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka has to be credited for their success in reaching the finals in such a dominating fashion. This was Udoka’s first season with the Celtics and he managed to turn around a mediocre squad in mid-season by making them buy his words on defence as Tatum and Brown finally reached their peak potential in tandem after years of honing their talent.
Udoka sought to contain the Warriors by employing a switching defence (on screens/ pick and rolls) and keeping a single defender on Curry to prevent his outside shots. Curry’s brilliance overshadowed the Celtics’ defensive schemes and after the Warriors’ scoring runs finally broke their back. Credit is also due to Kerr’s mid-series adjustments. After taking a pounding in the paint, Kerr sought to use a combination of potent small ball with five shooters and tactically deploying centre Kevon Looney who did a good job of helping secure offensive rebounds and extra possessions for the Warriors.
In sum, this must be the Warriors’ sweetest NBA triumph of their four championships. The Warriors doubled down on their strategy to retain their star players at a high cost — they pay the highest luxury tax in the league — even after Durant left and this helped them win a championship again.
The 2021-22 season was marred by the withdrawal of a few star players like Kawhi Leonard to injuries and was also affected by some degree of chaos due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But the NBA managed to run a full season and playoffs without significant disruption. Golden State Warriors might have won its fourth title in a decade or so of dominance by Curry and his cohorts, but this was a competitive NBA season with teams from both the East and the Western Conference doing their bit to stay relevant deep into the postseason.
The Celtics will lick their chops after this defeat but their future remains bright. Tatum did not have the best of the NBA finals and will have to go back to the drawing board to hone his one-on-one abilities after being outplayed by Wiggins. The Celtics could also seek another sharpshooting role player who can add some value for them on offence. Udoka has his task cut out but his first season at the helm suggests that he will relish the challenge.
With Leonard’s impending return, the further growth of the young and ferocious Memphis Grizzlies team, the expected improvement of MVP Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets due to two important players’ (Jamaal Murray and Michael Porter Jr) expected returns from injury, and the NBA off-season promising some interesting changes and additions to squads that miss one or two key pieces, 2022-23 should be even more competitive. Warriors certainly would not have it easy as they chase their fifth title.