The 2022 NBA Finals are here, and despite this year’s playoffs being marred by injuries from the very start, there’s a convincing case to be made that the two best teams in the league are still standing.
The Golden State Warriors won the Western Conference to make their sixth trip to the Finals in the last eight years. The Celtics haven’t been to the championship round since 2010 when they lost to the Lakers in seven games, but the franchise has made the conference finals in four of the last six years. With a dramatic Game 7 victory over the Miami Heat, Boston finally has the breakthrough it has been waiting for.
While it isn’t particularly surprising to see these teams in the NBA Finals, both of them definitely had to earn it. The Warriors missed the playoffs in each of the last two years after dealing with the departure of Kevin Durant and consecutive season-ending injuries to Klay Thompson. The Celtics were sitting at No. 9 in the East on Feb. 1 before riding a historically dominant defensive stretch to near the top of the standings.
There are so many great players on both sides in this series. Before it starts, we ranked the eight most likely NBA Finals MVP candidates.
8. Marcus Smart, G, Boston Celtics
The Defensive Player of the Year will likely get the assignment against Stephen Curry for long stretches. His long-shot Finals MVP case would start with somehow winning that matchup more often than he loses it. Aside from his outstanding defense, he’s also shooting well enough right now to swing a game or two. Whatever happens in the NBA Finals, Smart will probably be in the center of the action. It was between Smart and Draymond Green for the last spot on this list. While Green is certainly the better overall player, his contributions don’t always show up in the box score, which makes him an unlikely MVP winner.
7. Andrew Wiggins, F, Golden State Warriors
Andre Iguodala once earned Finals MVP honors for the Warriors for his elite defense on LeBron James back in 2015. Could Wiggins follow a similar path to the award this year? Wiggins is likely going to draw the Jayson Tatum assignment for the majority of the series after thriving against Luka Doncic defensively in the Western Conference Finals. The traits that made Wiggins the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft — length, speed, tremendous explosiveness around the rim — forms the bedrock for his defensive talent now that he’s not expected to be a primary scoring option anymore. Wiggins had an iconic dunk in the Western Conference Finals, and sure seems to be playing the best ball of his career right now. He’s going to have to be a major factor in the series if the Warriors win.
6. Al Horford, F, Boston Celtics
Horford has two championships to name already, but of course both came when he was in college with the Florida Gators. Now in his 15th NBA season, Horford is making the first NBA Finals appearance of his career, and has been a driving force behind Boston’s midseason surge. Horford looks like he’s found the fountain of youth this season, emerging as an indispensable and versatile defender and a plus rebounder while also shooting a ridiculous 43.2 percent from three in the playoffs. Horford is typically the type of player whose impact goes well beyond the box score, but he could be a sentimental MVP candidate at the end of the series if he has a few hot shooting games and the Celtics’ young stars struggle with their offensive consistency.
5. Klay Thompson, G, Golden State Warriors
Thompson has understandably lost some athletic juice coming a torn ACL and torn Achilles the last two years, and he’s no longer the lockdown defender he profiled as at the start of the dynasty. None of that should overshadow how remarkable his comeback this season has been. He remains a flamethrower as a deep shooter, entering the Finals 57-of-143 from three-point range in the playoffs — good for exactly 40 percent. Thompson showed he can still takeover games by popping off for 32 points on 8-of-16 shooting from three in Golden State’s series-clinching Game 5 win over Dallas in the conference finals. The narrative pull of his return from injury could be strong enough to earn him some MVP consideration if he catches fire a few times during the series.
4. Jaylen Brown, F, Boston Celtics
It wasn’t long ago that there was an audible discourse about whether the Celtics should break up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Not anymore. As Tatum has fully ascended to Boston’s primary option, Brown has grown into an excellent sidekick. Brown has always won with strength and athleticism, but in this postseason he’s added an extra layer of shot-making touch that has taken his impact to another level. Brown is scoring more efficiently than ever during these playoffs, including a three-point shot that has been falling at about a 40 percent clip. His Finals MVP case starts with the fact that he’s likely to have an easier defensive matchup than Tatum in this series, and he seems locked in as a shooter right now. As long as he can avoid live dribble turnovers, Brown figures to be a problem for the Warriors defense.
3. Jordan Poole, G, Golden State Warriors
Poole’s ability to stay on the floor might be the biggest swing factor in the series. The Celtics relentlessly hunted Miami’s weakest defenders in the Eastern Conference Finals, and there’s no doubt Poole is Golden State’s biggest liability on that end. If the Warriors can pull off show-and-recover schemes to limit the targeting, Poole’s offense will have a chance to be a deciding factor on the other end. The 28 overall pick in the 2019 draft has blossomed in his third season, turning into an electric off-the-dribble scorer with deep shooting range and elite quickness. He is at once both an excellent fit for Golden State’s system of constant motion and ball movement while also being able to break the system to get the team a bucket in a pinch. The latter could be especially critical against an elite Boston defense in this series.
Poole erupted for 20 or more points seven times in these playoffs on Golden State’s run to the Finals. He feels like he can break any game wide open with his microwave scoring. Poole isn’t the third best player in the series, but his scoring punch feels essential to the Warriors winning the series — as long as he can survive defensively.
2. Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics
Tatum has every attribute the NBA demands out of a superstar wing: a big 6’8 frame, a quick first step, deep shooting range, defensive switchability, and the bounce to finish plays above the rim. If there’s been a missing piece for Tatum, it’s his playmaking, but in these playoffs he’s been making the right read almost every time down the floor. Even if he’s been flustered into some poor shooting nights at times during this run, Tatum has consistently met the moment when his team really needs it. The Celtics’ clearest path to winning the championship starts with Tatum playing like the best player in the series. Expect him to hunt Curry and Poole on the spaced floor when Boston has the ball. His role will be equally essential defensively, where he’s likely to switch onto Steph Curry in ball screens if he defends Draymond Green as his primary matchup. It won’t be easy to outplay Curry, but the truth is Tatum’s life has been building toward this opportunity since his teenage years. He’ll be ready for it.
1. Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors
It’s hard to go too far with hyperbole when describing Stephen Curry’s greatness. He’s obviously the best shooter ever, but reducing him to only that is selling him way short. There’s a case to be made that he’s the top point guard in NBA history. There’s an argument that Michael Jordan is the only guard above him on the NBA’s historic mountaintop. As he prepares for his sixth trip to the NBA Finals, there’s only one thing missing on Curry’s resume: Finals MVP. He should be considered the favorite to win the award heading into the series.
Curry’s shooting has slipped some this year — he hit only 38 percent of his threes both in the regular season and during the first 16 playoff games, down from his career average of near 43 percent — but his gravity remains as immense as ever. Curry demands the upmost attention whenever and wherever he is on the floor, bending the defense with his mere presence like no player before or after him. He feels like one of the league’s best conditioned superstars, and those around the team believe this is the best he’s ever been defensively. There are plenty of reasons why the Warriors are back in the NBA Finals once again even without Durant, but Curry’s ability to maintain his greatness is the biggest one. He feels poised to finally grab the Finals MVP award that’s always eluded him.
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