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.
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.
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.