2022 NBA Finals Preview from an Elias Expert

Photo: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Recently we had the opportunity to have a conversation with Elias Sports Bureau researcher Rob Diamond about the 2022 NBA Finals.

With a great matchup full of interesting history and statistics (not to mention immense talent), access to a researcher from the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statisticians of the NBA, can provide you with an incredible amount of engaging information. Watch the conversation where Rob talks about the Reinvention of the Warriors, Jayson Tatum’s superstar leap and some more info on the rising duo of Tatum and Brown, or read an abridged version featuring some of our favorite questions and answers below. 

Question 1

Based on the most frequently asked questions by NBA teams and Elias’ media clients, what has been the main storyline of this year’s playoffs so far?  

So there’s two main underlying themes, one positive, one maybe not so much. The youth movement is very much underway in the NBA, with new stars breaking through. All five members of the All-NBA First Team this season were 27 years old or younger, the first time that happened since 1954-55. Many star veterans, such as LeBron James, Damian Lillard, and Russell Westbrook, failed to even qualify for the playoffs. Other aging stars such as Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and James Harden were dispatched pretty soundly. Young stars like Luka Dončić and Ja Morant have made the leap on the big stage of the playoffs, putting up huge stat lines and going on decent runs. 

The other theme is the number of blowouts, which has been… whatever the opposite of a silver lining is. There have been 22 games decided by 20 points going into this year’s Finals, only the second time ever that there’s been 20 games decided by at least 20 points in a single postseason. In more than half the games in this year’s playoffs, the team that was behind at halftime never went ahead in the second half. That said, the Warriors have overcome a double-digit deficit in half of their 12 wins so far, so I’m optimistic that these last two teams, the Warriors and Celtics, can provide some close scoring affairs. 

Question 2

The Warriors are back in the Finals just two years after posting the league’s worst record. How does a team go from worst to nearly first in a span of three seasons? 

The 2019-20 Warriors had no Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry missed all but five games. With almost all their money tied up in the injured Splash Brothers, the Warriors never really had a chance. Signing Otto Porter Jr. for the veteran minimum has paid off huge. This postseason, Porter is leading all players with a plus-15.0 net rating. 

The Warriors’ front office also smartly re-signed both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Golden State currently has nine players, more than half of its active roster, that have never played a game for another team. Four of them have over 300 games played together, the Big 3 plus Kevin Looney. There is something to be said about team chemistry, especially in the playoffs, and especially when the pecking order is established, where everyone knows their place and their role. 

Question 3

The Warriors’ M.O. in their first title run saw the Splash Brothers, Curry and Thompson, making threes from seemingly everywhere on the court. It’s been a different story this year though, hasn’t it? 

It’s a little surprising to see that Boston has more three-pointers made and attempted than Golden State, but the Warriors are still atop the leaderboard in playoff points per game, and they’re doing it on the strength of their two-pointers: making an NBA-high 57% of their two-point field goals. They’re shooting 72% on shots from less than 5 feet from the hoop, best in the league, while Boston is closer to 60% on those shots. Finding a way to close out games has also been huge for the Warriors. Golden State has a plus-25 net rating in the fourth quarter of these playoffs. They’ve actually been outscored in the first three quarters of playoff games this year. The Fourth Quarter Warriors have shot 54% from the field, 42 percent from three, 80 percent at the line, and they have fewer turnovers than in any other quarter. 

Question 4

Meanwhile in the East the Celtics are making their first Finals appearance since 2010. Was it inevitable from the get-go that Boston would be advancing to the Finals? 

It’s pretty much the opposite of that. They had more losses than wins at the season’s halfway point. Do you know how many teams have advanced to the Finals with a losing record at least 40 games into the season? Boston is just the seventh in 76 seasons, and first since Houston in 1981, but none of the previous six have gone on to win the Finals. 

The Celtics couldn’t put more than three wins together until February, but Marcus Smart was preaching patience in the early days of the season, comparing the transition from Brad Stevens to Ime Udoka to a new boss coming in and completely changing the way you work. And then what do you know, Smart ended up looking… smart. (Or would it be “smaht”?) Boston won nine of 10 games right before the All-Star break and 13 of 15 immediately after. In the first half of the season, the Celtics were middle of the pack in terms of scoring margin, outscoring teams by 1.6 points per game. In the second half, that jumped to 6.5 points per game, best in the league. They became a dominant defensive force, with enough offensive muster in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to defeat anyone. And they snuck the #2 seed away from the Bucks on the last day of the season to guarantee home-court advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs. 

Question 5

So they get the two seed and what’s their reward? A matchup with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Brooklyn Nets. 

That’s right, and the Nets opened at many sportsbooks as small favorites, which is rare for a #7 seed. To Brooklyn’s credit, all of their losses were decided by fewer than 8 points, but the Celtics swept them. The Nets finished with a better field-goal percentage and a better three-point percentage, but the Celtics prevailed with the fundamentals: out-rebounding Brooklyn, committing fewer turnovers, and making more free throws. Sometimes it’s that simple: make your foul shots! The Nets missed seven freebies in Game 2 and lost by 7 points, they missed 12 in Game 4 and lost by 4 points. 

Milwaukee was next and it turns out home court advantage did matter after all, with the Celtics hosting and winning Game 7. Then they draw Miami and it’s just gotta be feeling like the ultimate revenge tour for the Celtics – they had a shot to knock out all three teams to eliminate them from the playoffs in the previous three years. Boston led wire-to-wire in their Game 7 victory, making coach Ime Udoka the first rookie coach to win multiple Game 7s. 

Question 6

OK you’ve given us the lowdown on both teams, are you brave enough to offer a prediction? Who’s winning it all this year? 

No predictions from me! We here at Elias must of course remain objective. But I will say this: right after Boston eliminated Miami in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, in the Elias sports talk group chat, I threw out “Boston in 6, Tatum MVP.” Then I let the dust settle a little bit and started looking into the numbers a little more closely: this postseason, the Celtics’ most popular five-man lineup – Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford, and Grant Williams – has been a net negative, at minus 6.5 points per 100 possessions over 149 minutes on the court together. Switch out one Williams for another, Robert for Grant, and it gets even worse, minus-9.9 over 56 minutes. Whereas the Warriors’ most used lineup of Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green, and Kevon Looney have outscored opponents by over 17 points per 100 possessions. Golden State’s depth is a little thin due to injuries, so I think a key for Boston will be whether its bench can be a difference-maker.  

On a side note – I’m happy for Al Horford, who will be representing the Dominican Republic, as the first DR-native to play in the Finals, and playing in his first NBA Finals in his 15th season.