Warriors-Celtics NBA Finals preview: Matchups, prediction:

NBA Finals: 3 matchups to watch in Warriors-Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago:

When these NBA Playoffs opened, a sense of opportunity filled the air. The 2022 championship stood there for the taking for what seemed to be an atypical number of legitimate candidates.

And so it’s no surprise that the NBA Finals, which begin on Thursday in San Francisco, do not feature a top seed from either conference.

Unlike the Boston Celtics, who toppled the top-seeded Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, the Golden State Warriors did not have to eliminate the top-seeded Suns. But they had to get past the team that did so in the Dallas Mavericks, whom the Warriors beat in the Western Conference finals.

Any team that has advanced to this point has withstood its share of adversity and struggle. It’s often said that these final four victories are the hardest to notch.

Here are three crucial matchups to watch, plus a prediction:

Warriors offense vs. Celtics defense:

This isn’t to oversimplify matters. Boston employs dynamic offensive players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And Golden State can guard, too, as evidenced by its second-best defensive rating during the regular season behind – you guessed it – Boston.

But the Celtics’ have been almost otherworldly since they flipped the script on their season in mid-January. Their defensive rating of 104.8 from Jan. 23 – when they won to climb to .500 at 24-24 – to season’s end stood an astounding 4.6 points better per 100 possessions than the second-place Heat.

Their ability to play multiple styles will be needed against a Warriors’ offense that operates in space and, of course, features one of the game’s greatest shooters of all-time in Steph Curry. The Warriors’ offensive rating of 116.1 leads all playoff teams.

The health of Robert Williams III – and the spaced-out nature to the games – will be crucial here. Though the Celtics can go small and play an all-switching lineup, they’re at their best defensively when Williams is supplying his sublime rim protection.

Draymond Green Vs. the world:

Ostensibly, Green will be matched up often with Al Horford. But there are few more raucous home crowds than the Celtics’ faithful who will pack TD Garden. And who will conveniently forget that Green already annoyed the Heat fandom by predicting his Warriors would indeed be facing the Celtics.

Green lives on emotion, and it sometimes gets the better of him. He will be a target, both of the fans and the Celtics’ defense. Expect them to sag off him to dare him to shoot 3-pointers and try to take away some of his preferred passing lanes. Green can be turnover-prone at times, too, and must make the right reads.

Defensively, Green changes the Warriors. So they’ll need him on the court as much as possible. He fouled out of one conference finals game, picked up five fouls in another and four in two more.

Steph Curry Vs. Marcus Smart:

There’s a top seed vs. a top seed matchup in this series, after all. And this one is worth the price of admission.

Curry became the NBA’s all-time leading 3-point shotmaker during a December game in New York. Smart became the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton in 1996.

Smart inadvertently hurt Curry during the second of these teams’ regular-season matchups on March 16 by diving for a loose ball and rolling into Curry’s foot, spraining a ligament. Now, unfortunately for the Celtics, Smart is the one who is banged up. He missed Game 1 of the conference finals with a sprained right foot and then added a sprained right ankle on top of it in Game 3.

Curry is a master of off-ball movement. And while the Celtics possess the defensive ability and personnel to use different schemes, Smart is going to be the one chasing him around and off screens. How he holds up physically, particularly because he likes to play physically against Curry, will be crucial to the series.

And this series projects to be potentially an epic one. These teams are that good, that solid, that well-coached and that laden with players who are built for big moments. Buckle up, this one could take awhile.

Prediction: Warriors in 7:

RELATED: Steve Kerr leads Warriors to feat last achieved by ’90s Bulls:

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