Kawakami: My series prediction — Warriors over Boston in 6, Steph Curry gets his Finals MVP

Kawakami: My series prediction — Warriors over Boston in 6, Steph Curry gets his Finals MVP

If you could invent a team, piece by piece, to give the Warriors very specific problems in very significant moments, it’d look a lot like this version of the Boston Celtics. It might almost look exactly like these Celtics.

You’d, of course, need somebody to defend Stephen Curry physically and tenaciously, and Boston has Marcus Smart, the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year and described as the guard version of Draymond Green by none other than Steve Kerr.

You’d want a great overall defensive mindset to clog up and frustrate the rhythm of the Warriors’ motion offense, and Boston has a sterling 105.1 defensive rating in the postseason (compared to the Warriors’ 111.0), which comes after the Celtics’ D led the league in this key statistic in the regular season.

You’d want a transcendent wing player to take over games for stretches, and Boston has Jayson Tatum, who made his debut on the All-NBA First Team this season and was named the first-ever winner of the Larry Bird award as Eastern Conference finals MVP.

You’d want a secondary wing scorer to force Curry, Klay Thompson or Jordan Poole into grueling and potentially game-altering defensive minutes, or to nudge Draymond away from playing free safety, and Boston has Jaylen Brown, who has averaged 22.9 points per game this postseason, including a crucial 24.1 per in the Celtics’ seven-game victory over Miami.

You’d want athleticism and toughness defending the rim, and Boston has Al Horford and Robert Williams (though Williams is battling a knee injury), who have combined to average 3.5 blocked shots per game in the postseason.

You’d want a team brimming with intensity, and that quality was hard to miss both in that emotional Game 7 victory in Miami or during Boston’s Finals Media Day appearances at Chase Center on Wednesday, starting with their laser-focused first-year coach Ime Udoka on through Smart and everybody else in green.

This is not to say that the Celtics are a perfect team. As they’ve shown relatively frequently in their rough-and-tumble ride through the Eastern Conference, they can hit some offensive dips, they are a bit loose with the ball (sound familiar?), they’re not very deep and they’ve got some potential fatigue issues after playing 18 games so far in the postseason. (The Warriors have played 16.)

Meanwhile, the Warriors have looked better in each round of these playoffs, which, remember, started with Curry returning after a 12-game absence to close the regular season. But Boston isn’t the same kind of problem that the Warriors faced against Denver, Memphis and Dallas. The Celtics are more talented. The Celtics are more versatile. Similar to the Warriors, the Celtics are built to succeed in the playoffs. And the Warriors know it.

“We’ve been watching them for months now — their defense is absolutely incredible, they have a good offense and more importantly on offense they have a guy that is one of them guys,” Draymond Green said earlier this week. “Jaylen Brown is absolutely a very good player, but Jayson Tatum is one of them guys. And when you have that you always have a chance of winning.

“You look at them and say, ‘Wow they actually have what it takes.’”

Draymond was mostly making this point to explain why he (correctly) predicted on TNT last week that Boston would beat Miami in the previous round, an opinion that inflamed the Heat enough for several players to crow about it after they extended the series by winning Game 6. But then the Celtics won Game 7 in Miami; if Draymond was at all responsible for pushing the Heat to extend this series and burn more of the Celtics’ energy, I don’t think he is upset by it.

So the Warriors’ respect for the Celtics is well-earned. Boston has had more regular-season success against the Warriors than anybody else in the Steve Kerr era; in fact, the Celtics are the only team that has a winning record against the Warriors (9-7) in this period. That means something. It doesn’t mean everything for the outcome of this Finals, but it means something.

“They present unique challenges to us,” Klay said on Wednesday.

On the flip side, the Warriors (No. 1 offensive rating in the playoffs) are a more dangerous two-way team than anybody the Celtics faced in the Eastern Conference playoffs, more battle-tested than anybody in the league, have home-court advantage in this series and are 9-0 at home this postseason.

Both teams are very good. Neither blew through the regular season, but they both always had the pieces in place to go on a long run. And now they’ve both gotten here for Game 1 on Thursday at Chase. I think it’s going to be a long, fierce series. But you don’t want generalities, you want specifics.

So here are a series of Finals predictions …

Having home-court advantage is immense for the Warriors

How important was the Warriors’ five-game winning streak to close the season (after going 1-6 in the first part of Curry’s absence)? Very, very, very important.

For one, it pushed them to the 3 seed ahead of Dallas, which was the Warriors’ late goal. That set up a cushy first-round meeting with 6-seed Denver. After the Warriors topped 2-seed Memphis, the Warriors had home-court advantage over Dallas in the conference finals. Because of that winning streak.

Oh and also: The streak got the Warriors to 53-29 when they seemed destined for 50 or 51 wins max. And guess who finished with 51 wins: Yup, that’d be the Celtics. The Warriors have home-court advantage in this series because of the way they played at the end of the regular season without Curry. Just think about that for a little bit. I guarantee you the Warriors have.

Plus, I think either Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody might have to get some minutes to match up with the Celtics’ athletes, and it’s a lot easier for rookies to feel comfortable at home than it is on the road in the playoffs.

But before we make too much of this advantage, let’s remember that the Celtics are an astounding 7-2 on the road in these playoffs so far. They can absolutely win a game or two at Chase in this series. But the better you are at home, the better chance you have of winning the home games, and the Warriors are excellent at home.

Stat: In the five playoff games that were up in doubt heading into the final period at Chase this year, the Warriors have outscored the opponent by a whopping 44 points in those five fourth quarters. The Warriors have proven they can sprint past the opponent in almost every bell lap at Chase if things are close. That’s pretty powerful information.

Additional stat: The Warriors are 21-2 in Game 1s in the Kerr era, including 3-0 so far this year.

The Warriors’ playoff experience will be a tangible factor, especially the deeper the series goes

I’m not deriding Udoka, Tatum, Smart and the other Celtics, who have shown plenty of mettle by surviving back-to-back seven-game series against Milwaukee and Miami. Who are not piddling teams. This core group of players has also been to multiple East finals before finally breaking through this season.

But none of them have ever been to a Finals before, and none of them have faced this kind of crucible against Curry, Draymond, Klay and Curry, who live for these moments and have faced them against some pretty remarkable teams and all-time players. The Warriors of this era have never quit in a series. Not even close. Draymond and Curry surely wouldn’t ever let them. They’ve only lost two series and one was in seven games and the other was in six.

If Boston is going to beat the Warriors, it’s going to take a lot of energy and a lot of games.

Klay and Jordan Poole will both have at least one huge game apiece (and won’t be too exploitable on defense)

Maybe at some point, because both defenses and both superstars are so good, they all sort of will cancel each other out. That’s what generally happened in the Boston-Miami series, when Tatum and Jimmy Butler sometimes went shot for shot and then it came down to a secondary scorer getting loose. Or not.

Once the Heat’s Tyler Herro got hurt, Miami’s offense ground to a halt. You can’t just plug in offense against a defense like Boston’s. So which team is going to get the secondary scorers going in this series?

It really could come down to how much Poole and Klay can score, when they do it and how well they can hold up defensively against Brown and the Celtics’ non-premium scorers. Boiled down: Poole and Klay both probably have to carry the offensive load at least one time apiece in this series. And neither can get destroyed on defense.

What’s your role this series, Klay?

“Just doing what I always do,” Klay said. “Hunt my shot. Playing hard defense. They have got obviously great offensive players, guys who have been scoring the ball at will. So kind of have to move my feet.

“And then just be physical. I mean, been through a lot of battles at the highest level, so just got to rely on that experience and play with great fluidity.”

Andrew Wiggins will need help defending Tatum, and maybe Gary Payton II can provide it

I don’t think GP2, if he makes it back for this series after fracturing a bone in his left (shooting) elbow, will be scoring much since he hasn’t even tried to shoot with his left hand when he’s been seen at practice recently, including on Wednesday. But maybe Payton can provide four- or five-minute stints just playing up on Tatum and giving Wiggins rest here or there.

Iguodala could do some of the same, but I’m less sure that he’ll make it back. So could Moody or Kuminga, but I doubt Kerr is ready to rely on either of them to defend Tatum for more than a possession or two.

Fatigue could be a real factor early and late in this series

The Warriors clinched the West last Thursday. Since then, Boston has lost Game 6 at home to Miami, had to fly to Miami to win Game 7, fly home to Boston after that and then fly to San Francisco for this series. All while the Warriors have taken days off, gotten in a few scrimmages, gotten guys healthier and zeroed in on the Celtics game plan.

That could lead to some dead Celtics’ legs on Thursday and maybe even on Sunday, too. If the Warriors sweep the first two games, this might be a quick series. I say this going into each series and it’s always true. Because of something else I always update: The Warriors have won a road game in 26 consecutive playoff series, which is the entirety of the Curry, Klay and Draymond era.

But I’ll guess that, after a Warriors win in Game 1, Boston will fight through the weariness and win Game 2 because the Celtics are just such a good road team. Which would all but guarantee a long series.

The Warriors probably will get blown out once, likely in either Game 3 or 4 in Boston

It won’t be exactly like Game 5 in Memphis, when the Warriors trailed by 55 points at one point, but I’m thinking there will be at least one terrible Warriors performance in this series. They sometimes seem to need a massive clunker to get re-wired for the final push in a tough series.

So I’ll predict a 2-2 series heading back to Chase for Game 5. And I’ll guess the Warriors win Game 5. Which sets up …

The Warriors will win in six games

They’ve clinched two of their three titles of this era on the road, and my prediction is that they’ll do it again in Boston. Maybe with a 40-point Curry closer. And …

Curry will get his first the Finals MVP

You may have heard that Curry hasn’t gotten one of these and that the national talk-show hosts sort of ride him for it. I don’t think it’s a big deal. I think Curry’s legacy as an all-time top-10/12 player is firmly established and, in fact, the greater effect of his presence is that he infuses his teammates with so much confidence and gives them so much room to succeed. I don’t love legacy talk while a player is still in his prime, anyway.

But also, Curry could’ve been the 2015 Finals MVP, given his super-value to that team, but Iguodala was a worthy winner, too. Iguodala had the best plus-minus in the series, guarded LeBron James and scored efficiently. When he was moved into the starting lineup in Game 4, the series turned. But Curry was the focus of everything the Warriors did and would’ve been a justifiable winner, too.

Could Wiggins, Draymond or Klay have a monster series and get into the MVP discussion? Sure. But if the Warriors win, I’m guessing that it’s because Curry will have a large series and will shoot better than the 43.7 percent overall and 38 percent from 3-point distance he’s put up in the postseason so far.

It won’t be easy; Curry will have Smart stuck to him for most of the game. But the Warriors got things revved up pretty nicely in the Dallas series, and I think they can get into their movement and passing in this series, too. I’m predicting multiple 30-plus-point games and his normal fourth-quarter brilliance.

If he gets the Finals MVP trophy, it won’t just be a career achievement award for Curry. But that could be part of the nod. And Curry will deserve all of it.

(Photo: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

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