Path to the starting five: How the Celtics and Warriors built NBA Finals contenders

·11 min read

[Follow: Celtics-Warriors in Game 1 of NBA Finals]

This is the Boston Celtics' first time in the NBA Finals since 2010, when they lost to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in a seven-game series. Jayson Tatum was 12 years old, Jaylen Brown was 13 and Marcus Smart 16, each young hoopers dreaming of a chance to be in the shoes of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Twelve short years later, that dream is a reality.

On the other side, the Golden State Warriors have their own established big-three machine consisting of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The trio is competing for their fourth title together and have reached the Finals six times in the past eight seasons. For Golden State, it's the surrounding players who are different this time around, as the team is filled with young talent who needed time to grow in the Warriors' system.

Game 1 of the Finals will be the third time this season the two teams have faced one another. The Warriors took the first game in Boston in December, 111-107, and the Celtics won in San Francisco, 110-88, in March.

Each franchise had a unique road to building its team. Here’s a look at the history of how these teams' starting fives were formed.

Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum

The Celtics struck gold in 2017 when they landed the No. 1 pick in the draft (thanks to the trade that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets) and had options at the top with Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, De'Aaron Fox and Tatum. The Celtics traded down to No. 3, confident Tatum would still be there. What they got in Tatum is a franchise-changing player who has led this team all season long.

"Sometime in January, we kind of changed the course of the season around," Tatum told Yahoo Sports in March. "We had a new coach and a new staff, so it took a little more time to adjust than people may have expected. We've been playing the right way, and we've been having fun doing it. We're just trying to compete at a high level on a nightly basis, and it's been working."

Tatum has been incredible in postseason play. He averaged 25 points and 5.6 assists in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami. He has recorded four double-doubles in the playoffs and had 46 points in a critical Game 6 against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks that forced a Game 7 in the second round.

Marcus Smart

Smart played two years at Oklahoma State before being selected as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Throughout his NBA career, Smart has taken pride in his defense. He has sacrificed his body, dealt with injuries and still goes hard each night. He's one of the best perimeter players in the league and was finally recognized this season after winning the Defensive Player of the Year.

NBA fans are about to witness the best perimeter shooter (Curry) go head-to-head with the best perimeter defender in what will be a blockbuster matchup.

“My first Finals appearance going against one of the greatest who has been here and done it multiple times as the best shooters we have ever seen," Smart told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. "I just take the assignment like any other matchup, but this one I’m probably focused a bit more. I’m studying every aspect of his game, just making sure I try to understand to the best of my ability. And I’m really going to make sure I get my rest and my sleep to make sure I’m ready to go.”

Jaylen Brown

Brown was a highly touted recruit in high school and a McDonald's All-American. He shocked the masses when he chose to play his one year of college basketball at Cal over Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA. He averaged 14.6 points and 5.4 rebounds before being selected third overall in the 2016 draft.

Brown's biggest jump came after his rookie season when he went from averaging 6.6 points per game in 17 minutes to 14.5 points in 30 minutes his sophomore season. Each year, he has continued to improve and be an additional anchor to this Celtics squad. It was only a few short months ago when fans were calling for the young pair of Tatum and Brown to be split up. Now, the two are the fourth duo of players 25-and-under who led their team in scoring to reach the NBA Finals in the past 40 years, according to Elias Sports.

Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have led the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have led the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Al Horford

Horford might have been the missing piece all along to get this Celtics team over the hump and to their first Finals appearance in 12 years. The Celtics picked up Horford in June 2021 in a trade with the Thunder that sent Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City.

The 6-foot-9 forward started his career in 2007 when the Atlanta Hawks drafted him with the third overall pick. Horford spent nine seasons in Atlanta before being traded to the Celtics in 2016, after a three-year stint plagued with injuries. He made two brief stops in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City before returning to the Celtics for this championship-run season.

"I remember coming in my rookie year and seeing Al Horford. I’ve been watching him play my whole life," Tatum said. "He’s been the ultimate professional, ultimate teammate. He’s all about the right things and no one can ever say anything bad about Al. I’m very fortunate and lucky to call him a teammate."

Horford is the 17th oldest player on an active NBA roster and will turn 36 on Friday, one day after he is set to make his NBA Finals debut.

Robert Williams

Williams was far from a blue-blood recruit in high school, having only six Division I offers before committing to Texas A&M. Williams averaged only 10.4 points and 9.2 rebounds during his sophomore year, but the Celtics saw the long-term potential in the 6-foot-9 forward and drafted him with the 27th overall pick in 2018.

His adjustment to the NBA in four short years has been fluid and he's now a dominant force in the frontcourt, battling with some of the best forwards and centers in the NBA on a nightly basis. After dealing with injuries during the first couple rounds of the playoffs, Williams played the entire Eastern Conference finals series against the Miami Heat. On Tuesday, Williams was listed as questionable (knee) for Game 1 of the NBA Finals and head coach Ime Udoka told reporters during shootaround that it would be a game-time decision.

Golden State Warriors

Steph Curry

Curry was a huge piece in changing the Warriors franchise and he completely changed the way the game is played at the guard position. Golden State drafted Curry with the seventh overall draft pick in 2009. Curry spent three years at Davidson before declaring for the draft after averaging 28.6 points and 5.6 assists. He also led the NCAA in scoring and was a consensus first-team All-American.

Many initially thought Curry was undersized to play guard at the NBA level. All criticism was silenced after his rookie year. Curry has gone on to win three NBA titles, two league MVPs and has eight All-Star appearances. He's now the all-time leader in 3-pointers.

Curry was sidelined after five games into the 2019 season with a hand injury that needed surgery. Along with Thompson's injuries, it would be an uphill battle to return to the Finals. Curry never wavered.

"Come back, bottle this up, everybody make the right strides over the summer and ... you don't want to see us next year," Curry told reporters after being eliminated by the Grizzlies in the play-in game in 2021.

"The tone was set in those last 20 games [of the 2020-21 season] and carried over and gave us so much confidence that we could be that team again," Curry added last week after defeating the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals.

Klay Thompson

The "Splash Brothers" don't exist without Thompson, and the pair have been together for 11 years. Thompson was the 11th pick in the 2011 draft after a strong junior season at Washington State. He led the Pac-10 in scoring and set the conference tournament scoring record with 43 points, including eight 3-pointers.

Thompson went eight full seasons without serious injuries and won three NBA championships in the process. During Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, Thompson suffered an ACL injury that sidelined him for the entire 2019-20 season. To make matters worse, in July 2020, Thompson was injured again during a summer workout in Los Angeles and he was forced to sit out for a second consecutive season with an Achilles injury.

To watch Thompson's comeback has been incredible, and he hardly skipped a beat his first game back on the court on Jan. 9, 2022 against the Cavaliers. He scored 17 points on 7-of-18 shooting in 20 minutes. During the playoffs, Thompson is averaging 20 points and shooting 37.5% from deep.

The Splash Brothers, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, are back in the NBA Finals. (Harry How/Getty Images)
The Splash Brothers, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, are back in the NBA Finals. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Draymond Green

Green is the only second-round pick in the starting five rotation for the NBA Finals. After playing four years at Michigan State, the Warriors selected Green with the 35th pick in the 2012 draft. Along with Curry and Thompson, Green's accolades over his career are impressive. He has won three titles, is a four-time NBA All-Star and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2017.

In the past seven seasons, Green has averaged more than five assists per game and has made a career of creating for others offensively and being a complete menace on defense, disrupting every opponent he faces. When Curry and Thompson were sidelined with injuries the past two seasons, Green took on more of a leadership role and helped grow the younger players around him like Andrew Wiggins, Gary Payton II and Jordan Poole, a player he has credited for the success of this deep playoff run.

"You're talking a guy who was on the third-team All-G League last year, has been our No. 1 option in this playoffs," Green said after the Game 3 win over the Denver Nuggets in the first round. "The way he's playing, he's gained the trust of everyone on the team, he's gained the trust of Coach [Steve] Kerr, and he's gained fear from everybody else."

Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins was the No. 1 player coming out of high school and played his one college season at Kansas before being selected No. 1 overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2014 draft. (The Cavaliers technically drafted Wiggins, then traded him in a three-team preseason deal.) While Wiggins won Rookie of the Year for the 2014-15 season, his time in Minnesota didn't pan out and he was eventually dealt to the Warriors midseason in 2020.

The 6-foot-7 Canadian guard bought into the Warriors' system right away. He has been an integral part of this Warriors team the past two seasons, particularly on defense, and he has added some offensive relief to Curry and Thompson.

"We would not be here without Wiggins," head coach Steve Kerr told ESPN's Malika Andrews. "His defense throughout the playoffs has been amazing. The threat he provides offensively gives us another dynamic. It’s just been beautiful to watch him blend in with the core group."

Wiggins is coming off a huge series against the Dallas Mavericks where he averaged 18.6 points and 37 minutes.

Kevon Looney

Looney spent one year at UCLA and was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. The 26-year-old was drafted by the Warriors with the 30th draft pick in 2015 and has remained with the franchise throughout his career.

Looney has turned into the X-factor for the Warriors in this playoff run and it has been a slow-and-steady climb for the center. After averaging only six points per game during the regular season, Looney came alive during the Western Conference finals and posted a career-high 21 points and added 12 rebounds in a Game 2 win. The series before that, Looney made his mark by recording 22 rebounds in Game 4 against the Grizzlies — the most of any Warriors player since the '80s.