• Complete coverage: 2022 NBA Finals
BOSTON — The NBA Finals will reveal itself and where it’s headed come Friday, when the Celtics will either creep one step closer to an 18th banner, or the Warriors will pull even and regain home court and maybe the series edge as well.
When it comes to issues, here are four to look for in Game 4 (9 ET, ABC) at TD Garden:
1. Celtics will test Steph Curry’s creaky foot early and often
Because, of course. June is a sympathy-free month in the NBA. A championship is on the line and teams will do whatever necessary to win one. Boston will run Curry off screens and put him through a workout to reveal, once and for all, exactly how tender Curry’s left foot is 48 hours after an unfortunate collision with a clumsy Al Horford.
If you believe Curry, the only thing hurting on him right now are his feelings. He didn’t require an MRI. He appeared rather normal Thursday and downplayed any significance of the Game 3 mishap, although the Warriors didn’t conduct a workout.
“I’m gonna play. That’s all I know right now,” he said.
He didn’t exactly say, “I’m gonna play without any issues or discomfort,” so take that for what it’s worth.
“It’s just a pain tolerance thing that you’ve got to deal with,” he said. “At this point in the series, if you are good enough to play, you play.”
This is the same foot that was mangled when Marcus Smart landed on it back in March — on what coach Steve Kerr called “a dangerous play” — that forced Curry to miss a month. Curry said this one isn’t as bad. But anytime there’s a foot issue with Curry, the sensitivity meter is through the roof given his history of ankle sprains.
Curry’s importance to the Warriors is obvious; he brings three rings and owns poll position for Finals MVP, which would be his first, with a 31-point scoring average and consistent play. The game is getting physical though, so not only must his jump shot continue to cooperate, his body must too. Especially with him playing 35 minutes a night and now a greater sense of urgency being down 2-1.
2. Is Jaylen Brown the Warriors’ biggest problem?
There’s been a common denominator in the Celtics’ two wins: They were also Brown’s best games this series.
He scored 24 points with seven rebounds and five assists, and juiced the Celtics’ fourth-quarter storm in Game 1. And then gave his signature game so far on Wednesday by setting the tone early and providing 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists. That doesn’t even explain the work he’s putting in defensively, switching between Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and others.
What’s also noticeable about Brown is how he’s unflinching in the bright lights. He has gravitated to the ball in tense moments, accepted the toughest defensive assignment, turned physical when necessary and isn’t backing down to Draymond Green.
“Playoffs is my favorite time of year,” he said. “It’s what I love about basketball. It’s real basketball.”
Here on the biggest stage, Brown is explaining exactly who he is: A mature two-way player who’s capable of seizing the moment, no matter how big. Last year, he was out with an injured wrist when the Celtics fell in the first round. Right now? He’s obviously a growing problem for the Warriors, who must pay him the same level of respect as they give Tatum. Mainly because Brown has the ball in his hands nearly as much and has improved as a playmaker.
“I appreciate Ime (Udoka) for having that trust in me and that belief in me,” he said. “Everything else has been growth from here. Experience is the best teacher. The way I learn things is by putting me in the middle of it. So being able to get those reps all season long has helped in the playoffs now.”
3. Grant Williams is playing his way back into the mix
Through the first two games of the NBA Finals, the “other” Williams seemed invisible, surfacing only when he swapped trash talk with Draymond Green. Otherwise, Grant Williams has been unplayable, with an average of only 18 minutes and doing nothing special with totals of six points and four rebounds.
This came in contrast to the East semis when he had a pair of 20-point games against the Bucks, helped by sharp 3-point shooting, and also was appointed to the front line of defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But the smaller and quicker Warriors made Williams somewhat obsolete, at least until Wednesday when Williams finally had positive stretches. His efficiency and energy in 20 minutes produced 10 points, five rebounds and helped give Boston a size advantage; although Williams is just 6-foot-6 he plays bigger and helped the Celtics control the interior.
“We all just have to come out the next game with the same intensity, myself included,” Williams said. “I take pride on being prepared, mentally and physically, for whatever that comes my way. Whatever I’m asked to do, I do.”
The Warriors exploited their quicker and smaller selves much better in previous playoff rounds than in the Finals, which raises a curious question, now that they’re trailing 2-1 …
4. How will the Warriors go “big?”
Would this series have a different flavor from the Warriors’ standpoint if James Wiseman, their young 7-foot center and projected starter, stayed healthy? Suppose the Warriors had the chance to use him and Kevon Looney, the replacement who’s a better fit at power forward, against the Celtics?
That’s one of those hypotheticals that won’t mean anything if the Warriors win the series, but become an interesting what-if should they lose and continue to get outmuscled in the paint and near the rim. The Warriors were able to favorably exploit the size issue against the Mavericks in the West finals because Dallas was thin on functional big men. Not so in this series because the Celtics are thriving — and also keeping their fingers crossed that Robert Williams III can remain upright.
There’s really no secret here: Draymond Green must shake off his lethargy and Looney must recapture the spirit and impact he had against the Mavericks, when he was a factor at both ends. Both have been inconsistent in the Finals and especially turned to vapor in Game 3, when the Celtics out-arm-wrestled them by collecting 15 offensive rebounds and causing Draymond to foul out.
Will the Western Conference finals Looney finally make an appearance this round? Or was that series an anomaly for a player with limited skills who, throughout his NBA career, has been steady yet unspectacular?
More important is how Draymond bounces back, not from the crowd reaction — which will be harsh again — but his own carelessness regarding fouls and his ongoing allergic reaction to taking wide open shots. He still hasn’t reached double figures in scoring, and while that’s not a big requirement of him, he passes up chances that often lead to turnovers or tougher shots for his teammates.
“I have to be more aggressive on both sides of the ball,” he admitted. “I think I can. I will.”
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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