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A lot has been made, at least in some corners of social media, of the challenging paths the Warriors and Celtics have taken to the NBA Finals, at least in terms of elite players. If the Warriors win the championship, Stephen Curry will have led them through matchups against the reigning, two-time MVP (Nikola Jokic), a second-team All-NBA guard (Ja Morant), a first-team All-NBA guard who also happened to finish fifth in MVP voting (Luka Doncic), a first-team All-NBA forward (Jayson Tatum) and the Defensive Player of the Year (Marcus Smart).
On the flip side of that coin, if the Celtics were to win, Jayson Tatum will have led his team through a second-team All-NBA forward (Kevin Durant), a first-team All-NBA forward who finished third in MVP and voting and won two MVPs in the last four years (Giannis Anteokounmpo), perhaps the most impressive individual player in these playoffs (Jimmy Butler) and a second-team All-NBA guard (Curry).
Those are impressive lineups of competition but they are more indicators of team strength than of individual obstacles to be cleared — Curry wasn’t guarded by and didn’t really guard Jokic or Doncic, Tatum only spent 47 possessions across seven games as the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo. But using that idea as a thought-starter, I tried to find some of the toughest paths to a title over the past few years, in terms of actual individual matchups.
How do the paths of Jayson Tatum and Steph Curry compare to some of the toughest ever?
For example, look at what Kawhi Leonard went through in 2018-19.
Kawhi Leonard — 2018-19
Defensive Matchups (players defended 100+ possessions): Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Aaron Gordon, Khris Middleton, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler
Offensive Matchups (players defended by 100+ possessions): Ben Simmons, Khris Middleton, Aaron Gordon, Andre Iguodala, Malcolm Brogdon, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson
For the sake of comparison, the only players Curry has defended or been defended by for more than 100 possessions this postseason are Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks and Reggie Bullock. Not quite the same level of individual challenge.
However, Tatum’s run this season actually measures up to some degree.
Jayson Tatum — 2021-22
Defensive Matchups (players defended 100+ possessions): Wesley Matthews, Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler
Offensive Matchups (players defended by 100+ possessions): Wesley Matthews, P.J. Tucker, Jrue Holiday, Bruce Brown
It’s nowhere near as impressive as what Kawhi Leonard went through but it’s a bit more than Curry and, if the Celtics win the title, adding Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and/or Andrew Wiggins to that list on either end would be impressive additions.
The NBA’s matchup statistics only go back to the 2017-18 season and looking back that far we don’t see anything from Curry that really merits calling out. But what Kevin Durant faced that season was pretty significant.
Kevin Durant — 2017-18
Defensive Matchups (players defended 100+ possessions): Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, LeBron James, Hames Harden
Offensive Matchups (players defended by 100+ possessions): Trevor Ariza, Jrue Holiday, Rudy Gay, LeBron James
Nothing for LeBron James or Anthony Davis were particularly noteworthy for individual matchups in the Lakers’ run to the 2020 championship but all three of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are worth at least pointing out.
Giannis Antetokounmpo — 2020-21
Defensive Matchups (players defended 100+ possessions): Blake Griffin, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton, Jimmy Butler, Jeff Green
Offensive Matchups (players defended by 100+ possessions): Blake Griffin, Deandre Ayton, Clint Capela, Jae Crowder
Khris Middleton — 2020-21
Defensive Matchups (players defended 100+ possessions): Joe Harris, Mikal Bridges, Kevin Huerter, Duncan Robinson, Kevin Durant
Offensive Matchups (players defended by 100+ possessions): Mikal Bridges, Bruce Brown, Kevin Huerter, Joe Harris
Jrue Holiday — 2020-21
Defensive Matchups (players defended 100+ possessions): Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Devin Booker, Trae Young, James Harden
Offensive Matchups (players defended by 100+ possessions): Bogdan Bogdanovic, Devin Booker, Joe Harris, Kyrie Irving
Giannis’ matchups seem most notable for their range, defending and defended by everyone from wings to traditional centers. Middleton spent a lot of time chasing off-ball shooters but also matched up with Kevin Durant and was mostly defended by one of the best wing defenders in the league. And then there is Holiday who faced a fairly meh group of defenders but spent at least 100 possessions on five of the best individual creators in the league.
There is a purely subjective exercise and there are no right or wrong answers here. But if the Warriors win the title this year it probably should be recognized as more of a team achievement than Curry single-handedly overcoming an array of elite individual matchups. With a title, Tatum could make a better claim to that kind of narrative but it still looks like Kawhi Leonard still holds the belt for now.
Other NBA stories:
The Warriors have a combined 123 games of NBA Finals experience on the roster. The Boston Celtics? Zero.
Jimmy Butler became the most potent player in the NBA playoffs, although it wasn’t enough in the end. What did we learn from his postseason transformation?
The NBA handed out their first-ever Conference Finals MVP Awards this year. What would the history of this award look like if we go back decades?
Chris Herring goes deep on the Mavericks, what they still need to fix and what comes next after a surprising Conference Finals run.