As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the Eastern Conference team most capable of giving the Golden State Warriors a run for their money isn’t the one with the world’s best player.
Styles make fights and in the Boston Celtics, the Warriors have an adversary worthy of pushing them in the NBA Finals and in turn, delivering an entertaining series.
Boston don’t have LeBron James and their arsenal may not be as loaded as other contenders, but they challenge the defending champions in ways few teams can.
Even though the Celtics couldn’t pull off a second victory in as many chances this season against Golden State, falling short in a 109-105 loss on Sunday, they proved two things that should excite all NBA fans: Boston pose a threat to the Warriors dynasty, and even if they can’t topple the league rulers in June, the potential for a fun, competitive Finals would be high if the teams were to meet.
All of that is true in a vacuum, but when you put it in the context of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ downward spiral, it becomes clear that the NBA needs a Warriors-Celtics Finals.
We already saw how the Cavaliers fare in a series against this iteration of the Warriors last summer, when they were little more than sacrificial lambs. And what’s been made obvious this season is that Cleveland have only gotten worse since, through a combination of personnel changes and the inexplicable decline of key players.
When you have LeBron, you always have a chance. But to test the greatest team maybe ever assembled, you need a collective effort and these Cavaliers, at least right now, are very much a one-man army. Unless they get their act together or make a significant move before the trade deadline, no one outside of Ohio should be rooting for the fourth chapter of a Finals rematch that has become all too stale.
The Celtics, on the other hand, are in many ways the antithesis of Cleveland: fresh, young, defensively-minded and greater than the sum of their parts. And most importantly, they’ve shown this season that they can give the Warriors a hard time.
Both meetings between the sides have been decided by four points and each time Boston have done well to control the pace of the game, turning them into rock fights rather than allowing the free-flowing style Golden State prefer.
The Celtics boast the top defence in the league with exactly 100 points allowed per 100 possessions, so it’s not as if the ability they’ve shown to counter the Warriors has been a fluke. They possess length, athleticism and a penchant for playing hard all the time.
But all of that would be wasted if not for the brilliance of Kyrie Irving on the other side of the floor.
No player on Boston evens the playing field against the Warriors more than Irving, who – as he showed on Sunday – can carry the offence and get buckets when his team need it the most.
Irving was unconscious in a losing effort, hitting 13-of-18 shots to score 37 points with what looked like ease. If not for Stephen Curry’s equally amazing performance in which he dropped 49 points, including 13 over the final 1:42, Irving would have added another signature moment at Oracle Arena.
“We try to bring the best out of each other and tonight, was kind of one of those nights,” Curry said of his duel with Irving. “Just a fun way to play.”
Other Warriors players were just as complimentary of Irving and the Celtics, sounding almost excited at the thought of seeing them again in the Finals for the opportunity to get a real challenge.
Of course, the playoffs, as the Celtics have learned the past few years, are a different animal and Boston may not even be the most well-rounded team in the East – hello, Toronto – but there’s no doubt at this point what Finals match-up would be best for practically everyone.
The show put on by Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving on Sunday, when they combined for 86 points in the Golden State Warriors’ 109-105 win over the Boston Celtics, brought back memories of some of the greatest guard duels in NBA history.
Isaiah Thomas v John Wall, 2017
Thomas etched his name in Boston Celtics lore when he scored 53 points to beat the Washington Wizards 129-119 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last year, hot on the heels of losing his sister to a fatal car crash and one of his front teeth.
His performance was made more impressive by the fact he had to out-duel Wall, who had 40 points himself in a thrilling overtime result.
Chris Paul v Steve Nash, 2008
It took two overtime periods for Paul’s New Orleans Hornets to beat Nash’s Phoenix Suns 132-130, with the former filling up the stat line with 42 points, nine assists and eight steals, while the latter had 32 points and 12 helpers.
Kobe Bryant v Gilbert Arenas, 2006
NBA fans were treated to an unforgettable showing by two stars near the height of their powers on December 17, 2006, when the Washington Wizards clashed with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Staples Centre was accustomed to seeing Bryant top everyone, but on this night they witnessed Gilbert Arenas torch the Lakers for 60 points to edge Bryant’s 45, with Agent Zero dominating overtime for the 147-141 win.
Allen Iverson v Vince Carter, 2001
There were some incredible single-game duels between the two explosive scorers in the 2000-01 season, but their greatest back-and-forth came across multiple contests in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Iverson delivered 54 points in Game 2, followed by Carter answering with 50 in Game 3 and Iverson again going over the half-century mark with 52 in Game 5. Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers also got the last laugh by beating Carter and the Toronto Raptors in Game 7.
Bernard King v Isiah Thomas, 1984
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round series between the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks, King dropped 44 points while Thomas responded with 31 and 12 assists.
For Thomas, 16 of those points came in the final 90 seconds as he helped bring the Pistons back from a deficit to send the game to overtime. However, King took control in the extra period to lead the Knicks to a 127-123 win.
Here are takeaways from how the draft played out:
LeBron and Kyrie reunited
The juiciest tidbit to come out of the draft was that LeBron selected former team-mate Kyrie Irving. If he really wanted to avoid him, James could have easily forced Curry to take Irving with the last pick.
But LeBron being LeBron, was likely two steps ahead of everyone and knew it’s better to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, because Kyrie was definitely going to try to cross him up anytime they were matched up.
More Durant and Westbrook
We already saw that dynamic play out in last year’s All-Star Game when it looked like Durant and Westbrook sort of made up. It’s more fun to see them go against each other because as we’ve seen when Oklahoma City and Golden State have met, there’s still some bad blood there.
Maybe we’ll get some team-mate passive aggressiveness, but the drama just won’t be as high as it could be otherwise.
Size versus shooting
LeBron may have ended up with the better team – he had the first pick and already had himself, the best player in the world – but Curry’s team can even the playing field with its shooting.
It’s no surprise the greatest shooter ever selected other stars who can snipe from long range. Hopefully, Curry’s team will either go for dunks or just hoist 3-pointers and it’s likely someone will catch fire.
New format has raised interest
Consider this: we’ve not even reached All-Star weekend and yet the draft has been at the forefront of the conversation, despite the Super Bowl being just a little more than a week away.
Of course, if the draft had been televised, we would have even more to talk about, but nonetheless the new format has already been a resounding success as the All-Star Game finally feels fresh. Hopefully the game itself lives up to the interest it’s generated, but even if it doesn’t, the build-up has been more than worth it.