NBA Finals Odds, Pick & Series Prediction: Betting and Matchup Analysis for Warriors vs. Celtics
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics, Stephen Curry #30 and Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors.
- Two best teams (and defenses) in the league will match up in a potentially epic NBA Finals.
- The Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors aren't just tough defensive teams, they have offensive firepower to match.
- Matt Moore looks at how these teams stack up with one another plus gives his bets on the series spread and Finals MVP.
In the end, we get a righteous NBA Finals matchup. This should be good.
The Golden State Warriors, back on top of the Western Conference after recovering from the strain of five straight Finals, retrofitting their roster, and rediscovering the electricity that made them so dangerous as youngsters, face off against the Boston Celtics who looked lost at Christmas but had everything fall into place be season’s end.
The Warriors — the team with three championships and six Finals appearances in eight seasons– were built on a bedrock of Splash, carved by light years, and brought back to relevance by a mix of the old formula (defense plus Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) and new (Jonathan Kuminga, Jordan Poole and the X-Factor Andrew Wiggins).
The Celtics — the most storied franchise in NBA history — return to the NBA Finals after 12 years, but this time they’re the ones with something to prove. Led by a 24-year-old phenom they moved back in the draft for, with a franchise cornerstone they let walk to a division rival only to find they needed him, and a rookie head coach who learned under all-time great head coach Gregg Popovich, the Celtics have had an improbable run from sub-.500 to Eastern Conference Champs.
Along the way, Boston has been delivered the breaks they needed. From Jayson Tatum’s game-winner in Game 1 vs. the Brooklyn Nets to Khris Middleton’s injury and the shooting variance in Round 2 to a Game 7 vs. the Miami Heat where just enough went Boston’s way.
They’ve earned these chances, they’ve capitalized on this good fortune. They are not here by luck, but it certainly does feel like fate has bent the knee to make sure Boston has a chance at Banner 18.
So what wins out, the team of Destiny, or the team of Dynasty?
The Celtics have had an insane amount of success against the Warriors. Since Tatum was drafted in 2017, the Celtics are 7-3 against the Warriors. Four of those wins came in the two years that the Warriors basically retooled and kept its foot off the pedal with Klay Thompson out and Kevin Durant gone.
Still, there’s something to be said for how well the Celtics have consistently played consistently against the Warriors. Prior to the Tatum era, the Celtics were 2-2 with Marcus Smart in 2016 and 2017.
They even gave the Warriors one of their nine losses (at Oracle Arena no less) during the record-breaking 2015-16 campaign. There are too many differences between that team and this one to make a correlation there, but the Celtics have consistently built a team that could hang with the Warriors at their mightiest.
Celtics Defense vs. Warriors Offense
It’s important to point out the Celtics’ defense is not smoke and mirrors. It is elite. That checks out with eye test as well as the metrics when it comes to opponent shot quality.
Celtics opponents have shot roughly what is expected on uncontested shots (a low volume) against them. While opponents have shot 33% on lightly contested 3-Pointers in the playoffs, it matches up with the Expected Effective Field Goal Percentage based on the shooter, shot location, and contest level.
The Celtics have done an incredible job limiting Curry in their matchups in the Tatum era. Their switching defense helps with this. Curry has taken the ninth-fewest shot attempts per 100 possessions against the Celtics over the past five seasons, and the 11th fewest this season.
The Celtics have a 92.96 Contest Rate on Curry shots in that span, the fourth-best mark for any team facing him. Oddly enough, that number dropped this season, largely on account of shots off offensive rebounds and scramble situations in a small sample (25 shots).
While defending Curry is always a team effort, the primary assignment will go to the Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart.
Curry has 39 points on 43 usage matchups (that result in a shot, foul, or turnover) when guarded by Smart since 2017-18.
Since then, Curry is 9-of-27 with Smart contesting him, a 44% eFG Percentage. Smart is long, athletic, strong, and fast enough to navigate screens and stays attached to Curry. He doesn’t just contest Curry’s shots, he oftentimes cut off the passing lane.
OK, no problem. The Celtics switch most times, so just slip the pick. That’s how you beat the switch, right? Nope. Smart denies it.
Opponents average 0.88 points per possession trying to slip against Smart on a switch in the playoffs. Grant Williams, however, is a lot easier to counter.
The Celtics will bring help on slips from Green or Kevon Looney against Williams, but a good counter is to run something like this with a DHO from the screener for one of the Warriors shooters.
Robert Williams has been vital for the Celtics’ stellar defense. They’re allowing just 98.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court in the playoffs.
However, Williams struggles with switching. The Celtics give up 1.158 points with Williams switching as the screener defender, compared to 0.824 in all circumstances.
When Williams was on the floor this season against the Warriors, he wound up playing too deep against Curry and Thompson consistently.
This is a massive deal. If the Warriors can apply enough pressure to force Williams off, that gives them the same opportunity to take advantage on the offensive glass.
The game plan, of course, will be to show harder on those with Williams. But the Warriors put constant pressure on you to tax your focus. If you miss your execution once, they can burn you, and they put you through those paces four, five, 10 times a possession.
The question then is whether Boston’s small-ball unit with Al Horford at center (Net Rating +3.2) can get the better of Golden State’s lineup with Green at center, which has a +15.7 Net Rating in the playoffs.
This is how the Dubs are an entirely different video game boss than what the Celtics have faced in previous offenses.
The Celtics faced three pedestrian, bordering on elementary, offenses in terms of structure, firepower, but more importantly, how they were run.
The Nets had pretty much no offense for a number of reasons. The Milwaukee Bucks’ offense is not clever or disguised, it uses physicality to force rotations, and then punishes help with shooting. Not only was Middleton injured, but there weren’t mechanisms for the Bucks to create mistakes against Boston.
The Heat were even worse, without real shot creation, shooters, and a design that oftentimes seemed completely out of sync.
The Warriors are different. They apply pressure on you to play mistake-free basketball constantly throughout a possession and punish your instincts. Focus too much on the shooters and you’ll give up layups on the cut. Try and protect the rim too much and you fall asleep allowing an open 3-Pointer.
Conversely, the Warriors played what is essentially a non-existent Denver Nuggets defense, an injured and young Memphis Grizzlies team, and a very rudimentary Dallas Mavericks defense. The Mavs switched the way Celtics do, but not as cleanly off-ball and not with as much respect to angles.
Additionally, the Warriors’ offense hasn’t been “light-years ahead” so far in these playoffs. They have a 113.5 Offensive Rating since the start of the second round, but the gap is not so much to feel they are beyond the margin Boston can close with its defense.
Celtics Offense vs. Warriors Defense
Boston’s offense is eighth offensively in the playoffs. In wins, their offense is four points worse than the Warriors’ offense in wins, while their defense is more than five points better than the Dubs’.
The Nuggets’ offense, even without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., was still more efficient due to Nikola Jokic’s triggers. Memphis was more dangerous with Ja Morant slicing through and their cadre of shooters. And the Mavericks presented the challenge of Luka Doncic and great shooting but were neutralized.
There’s a lot of discussion about the Warriors’ traditional weakness, turnovers. But Boston has actually allowed a higher rate of points off turnovers than Golden State.
Any switching defense is only as good as its weakest link, so Boston will challenge Curry and Poole. However, the idea that you have to leave defenders on islands is false. Boston will try and challenge the Warriors early in the clock before they can set their defense.
But one of the advantages of having Green is how he can help out in all the little ways.
An underrated aspect in this series is Wiggins. He may wind up being the X-Factor in this series on both ends of the floor.
It’s not a dramatic simplification to say that Golden State’s defense is better than Boston’s offense and Boston’s defense is better than Golden State’s offense. The gap between those two measures will decide the series.
So … what are the bets?
Warriors vs. Celtics Series Pick
In case you can’t tell, I can talk myself into just about any position when it comes to two pretty great teams. The Warriors can absolutely win this series. They have a monumental experience edge and the ability to counter to what Boston can do.
This is not just a bet based on getting a plus number, however.
The Celtics’ resilience in the face of defeat warrants respect. They were down 1-0 and 2-1 to both the Heat and Bucks and won both series. They have been incredible after losses and haven’t lost back-to-back games in the playoffs.
On the one hand, it says something that the Celtics have twice had to battle back from disadvantageous spots. Teams have historically lost the series down 1-0 and down 2-1 (and down 3-2 as they were vs. the Bucks).
There is an ongoing conversation about the Celtics that credits them for these perfomances: They did this improbable thing once, so certainly they’ll just do it again.
That’s bad logic.
However, battling uphill against the Warriors is important. Teams get more used to how the Warriors play as a series goes on; we saw it with the Nuggets and Mavericks who were caught off guard in Games 1 and 2. (Notably the Dubs had home court in those series as they do in this one.)
Golden State’s offense has cracks in it, compared to the 2015-19 run, even factoring Durant’s absence. Thompson can still have huge games, but he will also have lower lows. Poole is explosive, but will be targeted more defensively than he was in previous series.
I’m not of the mind that this is an all-time great Celtics team. The idea of it being as good defensively as the ’04 Detroit Pistons, ’05 San Antonio Spurs, or even the ’14 Indiana Pacers is wrong. But this isn’t a year where you need to be all-time great. You just need to be great enough, and they are.
Boston has found enough answers and has enough players to make the Warriors pay. When Boston loses, they will look bad. The over-under for games each team will lose based on playing dumb basketball is 1.5.
The margin for the Warriors as teams have figured them out later in the series has been their talent advantage. Boston has enough talent to sustain that.
As for why I will take them in less than seven, it allows for a Game 6 hedge if I need it, and I expect Boston to steal one of two in the Bay. Despite 2016, I do not want to bet against the Warriors in a home Game 7, even if the Celtics just won a road Game 7 in Miami.
The Pick: Celtics -1.5 (+200) 2 units
NBA Finals MVP Picks
Al Horford +10000 (BetMGM, 0.5 units): This number is preposterous.
I get it, Horford averaged 13 points vs. the Nets, 13 points vs. the Bucks, and 9.8 vs. the Heat. But he’s averaged a double-double in back-to-back series, and this matchup is way better for him.
He’s not facing Bam Adebayo’s size and athleticism. He’s not battling Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Warriors will have to help off to a degree to help their guards who struggle to contain on-ball, especially if the Celtics target them as they did Max Strus. That opens up corner 3s.
Horford’s also the best narrative vote. A consummate winner in every place he’s played competitive basketball, respected by everyone, turning the clock back, and in the playoffs, he has the best on-court Net Rating of any rotation player.
If Tatum does not win it, I genuinely think Horford could have two huge games as he did vs. Milwaukee and win a feel-good award.
Jayson Tatum +180 (Caesars, 2 units): This is Occam’s razor if you think Boston wins the series. Jaylen Brown had a fantastic series against Miami and still couldn’t win the Larry Bird trophy.
Tatum is the head of the snake and will target the Warriors’ smaller defenders. He’s the guy who can best beat their switching defense with one-on-one play, and he’s become a great playmaker on top of it.
I think Horford is a great longshot, but I also think if Tatum doesn’t play at a Finals MVP level the path for the Celtics to win becomes perilously narrow.
Klay Thompson +1600 (BetRivers, 1 unit): Based on the defensive numbers above, I don’t think Curry has a phenomenal scoring series. Smart plays as well defensively against him as any player in the league. They have successfully kept him from shooting in volume.
The Celtics, via their switch, are best capable to limit Curry’s impact while respecting his gravity. He can still be the most impactful player in the series by drawing attention, but not win Finals MVP.
There is a reason he has not won one yet. I know how mad Curry fans get about it, but it says something.
So if Curry’s not going to win it, Thompson is the second-most likely Warrior. Thompson can find spots off the catch, is able to pull up off drives, and will play a big role defensively.
(Note: I have a Poole +1800 ticket from the conference finals, which has somehow lost value (he’s +2500 currently). I worry Poole will be played off the floor but he’s worth a flyer if you’re putting together a multi-player position.)