The first time a Top Gun movie was released (1986), the Boston Celtics won the championship. The sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, was released this summer… and, well, there was no correlation. Or is there? The Celtics didn’t win this year, but that might not be the connection. Both the 1986 Celtics and the 2022 Warriors had real-life Mavericks on their team, perhaps the two greatest shooters to have ever set foot on an NBA floor: Larry Bird and Steph Curry.
That and I really enjoyed the Top Gun sequel. I can’t remember the last time I experienced an adrenaline rush in the movie house (probably not since the aptly titled Rush in 2013), which gave me the perfect pretext for my final winners and losers column of the Finals (no losers this time though; there’s no need to rub the salt). Who are the Top Gun: Maverick counterparts of the 2022 NBA Champions?
Maverick: Steph Curry
Like Tom Cruise’s Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Curry keeps on defying age. At 34, he is already a dinosaur in basketball years. He just registered the worst-shooting regular season of his career (43.7% FG/38% 3FG) and while he looked great through the first three rounds, he wasn’t quite prime Steph sensational. But with his team entering the Finals as underdogs according to ESPN’s BPI and FiveThirtyEight’s predictive model, Curry did the basketball equivalent of Maverick making that unauthorized flight of the simulated course with the original mission parameters (minus 15 seconds)—he showed that it could be done, that this version of the Warriors can win a title.
This is Curry’s sixth Finals appearance and hands-down his best one. He averaged 31.2 points on .482/.437/.857 shooting splits, while also adding six rebounds, five assists and two steals per game. Curry was so great in this series that people were talking about him possibly winning the MVP even if the Warriors lost. But he made sure it didn’t come to that. He delivered the finest playoff performance of his already decorated career in Game 4, a 43-point chef’s special on what proved to be the turning point of the series.
There will be plenty of legacy talk after Curry won his fourth title and finally bagged that elusive Finals MVP to complete his NBA resume. His legacy as a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and greatest shooter of all-time is already secure. That’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s whether he belongs among the 15, or even 10, greatest to ever do it. Proving that he can win another title without Kevin Durant is sort of a big deal in terms of where those two end up in the all-time rankings relative to each other.
At this point, I’m not quite prepared to discuss whether he’s in the top 10. With these types of things, you’ve got to let it sink in for a few weeks before diving into the subject to avoid being a prisoner of the moment. Right now, I have Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant in the top 10. Are we at that stage where we can bump Steph ahead of Kobe and Shaq? I don’t have a definite answer now, but it’s an intriguing proposition.
Rooster: Andrew Wiggins
Maverick’s new wingman. The second-best player on a championship team.
He saved Curry in the one game that Curry didn’t have it. I talked about his Game 5 performance in the previous column, and I won’t repeat much of what I already said. But let me highlight two important points. First, Golden State’s championship odds improved dramatically once he assumed the role of being the second most important Warrior in the West Finals against Dallas. On a team that has Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, two all-stars who have been a core part of the Warriors dynasty since its inception, that’s saying a lot.
Second, he outplayed Jayson Tatum for the entire series. Many have anointed Tatum as a top 10 player after leading Boston to the Finals and winning the inaugural Larry Bird ECF MVP, and Wiggins just shut him down in a way that we haven’t seen since Kawhi Leonard did this to LeBron James. But it wasn’t just his defense. Tatum may have scored more, but Wiggins shot the ball much better from inside the arc and hit timelier buckets. He proved that he can be a viable second option; he didn’t shoot the three-ball well this series, but his mid-range and finishing around the rim looked superior Tatum’s. As Bill Simmons mentioned in his podcast, Wiggins did offensively what everyone expected Tatum and Jaylen Brown to do.
Speaking of Kawhi, check out Wiggins’s statline for the series compared to Leonard’s 2014 Finals MVP-winning performance:
2022 Wiggins: 18.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.5 blocks
2014 Leonard: 17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks
That’s how tremendous two-way Wiggs was in the Finals.
And here’s another Top Gun connection: Rooster’s father Goose was one of the key characters in the 1986 Top Gun movie; Wiggins’s dad Mitchell played in the 1986 Finals for the Rockets. Goose tragically died in the 1986 flick; Mitchell’s basketball career effectively died after Finals when he was suspended for two-and-a-half years for violating the NBA’s drug policy.
Phoenix: Klay Thompson
Phoenix probably had the third-most speaking lines in the movie behind Maverick and Rooster. And that was Klay’s role in this series. He wasn’t the best, but he was solid as the third guy. Phoenix defied the odds by becoming one of the top pilots in a male-dominated field; Klay defied the odds by returning from back-to-back leg injuries that saw him miss two-and-a-half seasons.
There was a scene in the movie where Phoenix got into trouble because birds literally hit the fan causing a left engine fire and right engine overheat, after which it looked like her confidence was shot. That was Klay after Game 2, when he shot 4/19 from the field and 1/8 from three. It got so bad that there were murmurs of whether Steve Kerr might actually consider benching him. But he proved he was still dependable in the middle three games, particularly in Games 4 and 5.
Bob: Gary Payton II
For the son of one of the greatest trash talkers of all-time, GPII has a relatively quiet demeanor on the floor. Just like Bob.
But what really clinched it for me was this interview with ESPN’s Malika Andrews:
The guy is just so humble. Just like his Top Gun counterpart, he’s an outsider who’s been with four different teams in six years, including stints at the G-League. But he rose to the occasion when it mattered the most.
Some more trivia: The actor who played Bob, Lewis Pullman, is also the son of an iconic 90’s personality. His father, actor Bill Pullman, played a fighter pilot fighting aliens in Independence Day, which was released in 1996, the same year Payton Sr. made the Finals with Seattle.
Coyote: Draymond Green
In the early part of the movie, Coyote was hyped up as one of the best pilots among the crew. But then he passed out during practice and had to be saved by Maverick to prevent another fatal Goose moment. That was like Draymond Green coming into the series overrated just because he’s been there before; but he was ineffective in four of the six games, fouling out thrice. Curry saved Green’s ass and reputation, which was taking a big hit because he seemed to have been more focused on his podcasts.
But in a roundabout way, Curry needed Green to underperform in the same way that Maverick needed to save Coyote because it allowed him to have his moment of catharsis. After the Warriors struggled in the second half of the season, which coincided with Green’s absence, there was some talk about how Green was the team’s true MVP. The Finals allowed Curry to set the record straight.
Hangman: Jordan Poole
Cocky. Arrogant. Annoying.
He’s good and had his moments, but he wasn’t even one of the five most important players in the Finals for the Warriors. Poole has a bit of Steph in him in the same way that Hangman has a bit of Maverick/Iceman in him. But it doesn’t mean he’s on the same level.
And like Hangman, he leaves his teammates out to dry on defense, which made Poole unplayable in close games because the Celtics were constantly looking to exploit him.
Payback and Fanboy: Kevon Looney and Otto Porter Jr.
The consummate role players. Level-headed and team-oriented, they are capable enough that the mission would not have succeeded without them. Kerr moved Porter to the starting lineup in Game 4, and though it didn’t really affect either of their minutes, it proved to be a masterstroke as the Celtics never won another game in the series following that tweak.
Iceman: Andre Iguodala
Iggy had some moments in the series, but it was on the bench. He went viral for the way he vigorously coached Wiggins in Game 3.
Like Iceman’s cameo in Maverick, it was more of an emotional scene than something that directly impacted the game. Iggy was once Steph’s wingman in 2015 when he won the Finals MVP. But as his appearance in Game 1 showed, those days have passed.