Defense wins championships, right? Fittingly, the two teams set to meet in the 2022 NBA Finals are the Celtics and Warriors, owners of the No. 1 and No. 2 rated defenses in the 2021-22 NBA season, respectively.
That said, there is only one Defensive Player of the Year of the 2021-22 season, and he doubles as the heart and soul of the Celtics franchise.
When Marcus Smart takes the floor for Game 1 of the Finals, it will mark just the 10th time that the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year plays in the Finals in the year in which he won the award, which was first handed out in 1983. And while the Celtics’ defense is a sum of multiple parts, the Warriors’ stellar guard play ups the ante for Smart defensively, as he’s sure to spend plenty of time matched up with Western Conference Finals MVP Stephen Curry.
MORE: Why Marcus Smart is SN’s Defensive Player of the Year
Smart has never been one to back down from a challenge and in certain one-on-one situations this series, he’ll be tasked with one of the NBA’s toughest: chase — and limit — the greatest shooter of all time.
What can history tell us about the impact of the Defensive Player of the Year in the Finals? From Michael Cooper in 1987 to Draymond Green in 2017, look back at how the NBA’s best defenders impacted the pursuit of a title.
MORE: Breaking down the 2022 NBA Finals
Defensive Players of the Year in the NBA Finals
1987 NBA Finals: Michael Cooper, Lakers
With the Lakers advancing to the 1987 NBA Finals to face the Celtics, Cooper’s challenge was to attempt to make life difficult for Larry Bird.
The well-documented gamesmanship between Bird and Cooper includes Cooper reportedly studying Bird’s offensive repertoire during his summer vacation and Bird admitting that during offseason workouts, he imagined Cooper guarding him.
For the series, Bird averaged 24.2 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists on .445/.500/.921 shooting splits, but Cooper and the Lakers won the championship in six games.
1990 NBA Finals: Dennis Rodman, Pistons
Rodman was extremely limited by an ankle injury in the 1990 NBA Finals, missing Game 3 of the series and playing just one minute in Game 4.
In the series-clinching Game 5, however, Rodman returned to play 30 minutes off the bench and recorded two blocks. It’s no coincidence that Detroit held Portland to a series-low 90 points upon Rodman’s return.
1994 NBA Finals: Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets
After Olajuwon was named Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the 1993-94 season, only Patrick Ewing and the Knicks stood in the way of The Dream’s first title.
With two of the NBA’s all-time great centers clashing in a seven-game series, Olajuwon did his part to help limit Ewing to 18.9 points per game on 36.3 percent shooting for the series.
The result? A Rockets series win.
1996 NBA Finals: Gary Payton, SuperSonics
Michael Jordan might say he had no problems with The Glove, but the numbers suggest he had some difficulty.
As the Bulls got out to a 3-0 series lead over the Sonics, Payton was not used as the primary defender on Jordan. Ahead of Game 4, head coach George Karl made the switch and the Sonics clawed back into the series before losing in six games.
As for the numbers, Jordan averaged 31.0 points on 46.0 percent shooting in Games 1 through 3 and averaged 23.7 points on 36.7 shooting in Games 4 through 6. It seems like Payton had an impact.
2001 NBA Finals: Dikembe Mutombo, 76ers
In the rare instance of an award-winner being traded midseason, Mutombo won the award for his work with the Hawks and the 76ers, who used him to fuel a run to the Finals.
His reward? A matchup with league MVP Shaquille O’Neal.
There wasn’t much that Mutombo — or the Sixers — could do to slow down Shaq, who won Finals MVP honors with averages of 33.0 points and 15.8 rebounds on 57.3 percent shooting in the series.
2005 NBA Finals: Ben Wallace, Pistons
Wallace gave up a few inches but in 2005, it was his duty to slow down Spurs leading scorer Tim Duncan.
In a series that saw very little scoring altogether, Duncan’s averages of 20.6 points and 14.1 rebounds led the Spurs to a title in seven games.
Duncan’s numbers were Finals MVP-worthy, but he did shoot just 41.9 percent from the field. Quite the dip from his career playoff average of 50.1 percent.
2008 NBA Finals: Kevin Garnett, Celtics
The first player in Celtics history to win Defensive Player of the Year, Garnett earned the honor for his skills quarterbacking Boston’s defense, just as much as he earned it for his post defense and rim protection.
Garnett, who averaged 18.2 points and 13.0 rebounds for the series, spent some time matched up with Pau Gasol, who was the Lakers’ second-leading scorer in the series with just 14.7 points per game.
With Garnett leading the defense, Boston clinched the series with a resounding 39-point win in Game 6.
2009 NBA Finals: Dwight Howard, Magic
Howard anchored Orlando’s defense en route to winning his first of three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards.
In the Finals, Howard was tasked with being the backline of the Magic’s defense and he averaged 4.0 blocks per game in the role, including a Finals record nine blocks in Game 4.
However, it wasn’t enough as the Lakers convincingly won the series in five games.
2017 NBA Finals: Draymond Green, Warriors
As the defensive anchor on arguably the greatest team of all time, Green’s role was pretty critical to team success.
In the Finals, Green served as the rover that made sure all things were in order defensively and was another body that Golden State could use to try to limit LeBron James, though he did average a triple-double in the series.
Green’s defensive presence is one of a number of reasons that the Warriors would win this series in five games.