With four and a half minutes left in the third quarter of the second game of the 2022 NBA Finals, Al Horford set a screen on Gary Payton II. Horford’s defender, Andrew Wiggins, did not come up to pressure Jayson Tatum and Tatum took advantage of the open look. He nailed an above-the-break three and brought the Celtics within six. Then the Warriors transformed into a hurricane.
First, there was the screen Otto Porter Jr. set on Derrick White just a few feet past midcourt. White quickly recovered, managing to get a hand in Stephen Curry’s face as he released his shot, but it did not matter and the shot fell neatly home. It was an unlikely result for such a shot, but its inherent absurdity was leavened by the simple fact of who took it. A few possessions later, Jordan Poole found himself guarded by Daniel Theis and took full advantage. Poole dribbled between his legs, faked a drive, then stepped back several feet behind the three-point arc while Theis remained within its confines. Poole rose, fired, his legs splaying apart as he landed. The shot, of course, went in. It was all a precursor to the last possession of the quarter though. With just a few seconds left, Poole hurriedly brought the ball up, again dribbling the ball between his legs and rising for a shot. But this time he could not have been more than a yard beyond midcourt. You already know what happened next. These three baskets were the most ridiculous parts of a 19-2 run that concluded the third quarter and clinched the game. The Celtics didn’t do anything wrong, but it didn’t matter. For those four minutes, they were just a supporting player in someone else’s play, no more than a foil.
The Celtics are hard to beat. Three Eastern Conference teams lie defeated as a testament to their skill and resilience. But they are still just a basketball team, a group of mortals trying to achieve immortality by winning a championship. Opponents can gameplan for them and work to force them into bad situations, though so far, the Celtics have been skilled enough to outperform the opposition and rise above whatever situations they have found themselves in. They would be worthy champions.
But the Warriors are something different. They have a general structure that one can plan for and try to neutralize – even the most casual NBA fan has a passing familiarity with their motion offense at this point – but functionally, it is just a launching pad for something more audacious. It does not always work. How many stretches of ill-advised passes and silly turnovers have we seen from the Warriors when they try for the astonishing play instead of the reliable one? However, they pull such things off frequently enough for them to keep doing it. On a fundamental level, one cannot try to counter the Warriors without reconsidering what it means to play basketball at all. Golden State, at their best, plays in a way that does not deny traditional ideas of what it means to play good basketball, but transcends them. How do you guard the impossible?
While Stephen Curry is the Warriors’ engine and best player, I sometimes think that Jordan Poole captures the team’s spirit more than anyone else. Poole is all absurdity, a sinewy collection of tics and oddly syncopated feints. Has anyone ever moved quite like this? He plays with the confidence of a teenage boy who has gathered his friends together in the hopes of impressing them by doing something very dangerous. The thought of things going awry never enters his brain. Though, to be fair, it’s difficult to call anything he does too reckless when it works this often.
I’m not sure that the Warriors are that much better than the Celtics, but what I am sure of is that there are spells where Golden State looks unbeatable. These stretches do not always arrive when they are needed, but they happen frequently enough to be meaningful, to say something about this team’s capabilities and also their likelihood of becoming NBA champions. The question for the Warriors is not if they are good enough to defeat the Celtics three more times; they clearly are. The question is can they continue to summon that which lies somewhere beyond logic? Can they rely on something so fundamentally unreliable?
The Celtics are merely a very good NBA team. They may not reach the sublime heights of the Warriors at their best, but there is a virtue in their steady achievement. They are deep, disciplined, resilient, and talented and they can count on that every night. While Golden State may have the higher ceiling, one never knows whether it will continue to rise or come crashing down. It comes down to what you value most: would you rather have reliable greatness or the ability to occasionally, and unpredictably, conjure magic? Are you willing to bet that you are one of the few who can burn without being consumed by the flames?