First, let’s start with the obvious: Nobody heads to the arena and says to himself, “You know, I think I want to play badly tonight.”
As the uniform goes on, there are thoughts of hitting the game-winning jumper, or stealing the ball with the outcome on the line.
But inevitably, some guys play well, and some guys don’t. It could be because of an injury, or maybe some foul trouble, or some bad luck, or maybe just because that’s what the basketball gods decreed. Now it goes without saying that Steph Curry and Jayson Tatum have to deliver in this series, but here some other key players to watch, because it’s the variability in their performances that are more likely to determine the outcome.
Jordan Poole: Poole plays ultra-cool, ultra-confident, and has hit big shot after big shot for the Warriors all year long. He’s gone in and out of the starting lineup, and hasn’t let it get to him. He just plays his 30+ minutes, uses those long limbs to get to the rim and drops in at least one impossible three a game.
But Poole can’t guard a parked car, and every Boston Celtic knows it. As soon as Poole steps on the court, the Celtics are going to hunt him down and make him defend. Tatum’s eyes will light up as soon as he sees Poole in front of him, and even Grant Williams is going to feel like a scorer when he’s isolated on number three.
Which means that not only does Poole need to bring his A offensive game to the Finals, he also needs to find a way to come up with a gentleman’s C as well – because if he gets worked on defense, it won’t matter how many points he scores.
Robert Williams: This is all about Williams’ gimpy knee. If he is somehow at 100%, or even close, then he creates problems for Golden State on both ends of the floor. On defense, he is a great shotblocker and will be able to nullify a lot of the back cuts and Poole drives that killed Dallas and Memphis. On offense, his shooting percentage was a mind-boggling 73.6% -- granted, anything outside three feet was like a half-court shot in his mind, but still, that’s a pretty good number.
If Williams can’t play, or is ineffective, then the defensive rim-protecting role shifts to Al Horford, which will wear down the 36-year-old and most likely hurt him at the other end.
Otto Porter, Jr.: Speaking of health, Porter’s might be the most important in the series. He has simply been a revelation for Golden State this year, hitting big shots and defending with intelligence.
But Porter is also as fragile as a debutante’s ego, and he could easily wind up being a non-factor. If, however, he can play 15 to 20 minutes a game, and slow down Jaylen Brown, he could turn the series around.
Marcus Smart: So Smart is the Defensive Player of the Year – or so the voters say. There’s not much doubt that Draymond Green is really the DPOY, and Robert Williams is the best and most important defender on the Celtics, but both missed large parts of the season, so Smart defaulted into the award.
Now Smart is a good defender, but he has a bum ankle. And more important, his ability to guard Curry is dependent on how physical the officials allow him to be. This is not an implied criticism of the refs – it’s just part of the game. If the tone of the series is set so that Smart can use his strength on Curry on every cut and every possession, Smart will inevitably wear down the older, smaller man. But if the calls are tight, and Smart gets a game-one call for bumping Curry on a cut through the lane, Smart will have his hands more than full trying to guard Steph.
Andrew Wiggins: The number one overall pick in 2014, Wiggins will likely define his career in this series. No pressure, right?
He will be the primary defender on Tatum, and he absolutely has to knock down jumpers to keep the floor spread. If Tatum torches him, or his three-point shot takes an early flight to the Bahamas, or both, the Warriors are toast. If he puts together the best series of his career, he’s cemented his legacy as an elite NBA player and the Warriors win another title – and incidentally he’s earned himself more money than a Russian oligarch.
No pressure, right?