Tonight, the Boston Celtics are playing the defending Western Conference champions and undisputed Super-team, the Golden State Warriors. For both Celtics fans and Warriors fans, this has to be considered must-see TV.
I count myself in both camps, though I am first and foremost a Celtics fans. I like the Warriors as well, primarily for Steph Curry, who is far more the kind of superstar basketball player I enjoy than Lebron James or Kevin Durant. I also enjoy the Warriors for their much-hyped style of play. I’m not ready to declare it game-transforming just yet, but watching a team that prioritizes three-pointers, spreading the floor and moving the ball around the perimeter is fascinating to me. The warriors are the gold standard for this style, but the Celtics play something similar, especially when Isiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are firing on all cylinders.
I say Curry is the kind of star player I prefer not out of some quality judgment about his merits over those other guys, but because of my own idiosyncratic tastes for basketball players. I like the short guys. I’m short and slight and so I like the short, slight guys, especially when they are also awesome. I like Dustin Pedrioa and Jose Altuve. I like Wes Welker and Julien Edelman. I loved Earnest Givens. I was mildly obsessed with Spud Webb as a kid. Curry is not that short, really. He’s listed at 6’3, but that is NBA short and it is a hell of a lot more relatable to me than a monstrous physical specimen like Lebron or KD. I like both them as players and as people, but I am only really fascinated by players who don’t make sense in some way and Curry doesn’t make sense as the best player in the league in just the right way for me.
You can probably guess that if I like 6’3-otherwordly-shooting Steph Curry for the freakish way he succeeds, I am an even bigger fan of Boston’s 5’8 Isiah Thomas. Thomas was an All-Star last season and he has been even better over the first nine games of this season. If you were to be extremely generous, you might even call him the poor-short-man’s Steph Curry. Like Curry, he plays the point and has the elite handles and drive-to-the-hoop ability you expect from a player at that position. No one is like Curry when it comes to shooting beyond the arc, but Thomas is a strong three-point shooter and that adds an extra dimension to his game at the one that is not entirely unlike what Curry’s shooting ability gives Golden State.
These players and similarity is the main reason I am extremely excited about this game. Boston is far from being a Golden State clone; even before the addition of Durant, the Warriors were not a team that could just be copied. However, like GS, Boston features a point guard (Thomas) who is also the team’s top scorer. IT is averaging 27.1 points per game and has carried the Celtics at times with Al Horford and Jae Crowder out of the lineup. Curry is averaging 27.9 PPG, even without having to the carry the offense as much as he has in the past. Both teams start with the point guard and their shooting ability, forcing teams to step up on them and open up the court for other players, and both guys can make their way to hoop when the defense over-commits to the perimeter.
Behind Curry there has been Klay Thompson, one the greatest outside shooters in the history of the game in his own right. This season, Boston seems to have found a legit second option in Avery Bradley. Bradley has been a good three-point guy, but now he also has the ability to create off the dribble, making him a much more versatile player on offense. With the addition of Al Horford, the Celtics have a forward who excels at passing and can help create space for these two. If both he and Jae Crowder return for tonight’s game, the Celtics should have the defense to match up with Golden State as much as that can be done with Curry, Durant, Green and Thompson all on the floor.
If the Celtics strategy last season was to somewhat harass and contain Curry while shutting down Green and Thompson, now that won’t be enough. If Jae Crowder doesn’t play or is limited, the Celtics have a very difficult time matching up against Durant. If Al Horford is also out and the rebounding stays as bad as it has been, the Celtics are in serious trouble. Boston was expected to be a strong defensive team and when healthy they have the talent to be just that, but they haven’t been healthy yet this season and their offense has had to carry them.
If Boston can do something close to what they did against the Warriors on defense last season with Durant in the mix, it will be a crazy game. They will still struggle with Durant, but fortunately, on offense, they seemed to be a step above where they were last season. In his masslive piece on the game, Tom Wetherhold pointed out that Warriors are not playing up to their 2015-2016 level on defense either and predicted a shoot-out. The Warriors probably win any shootout scenario, but the possibility of that kind of game is certainly not a reason to turn this one off. Boston is a top-ten offense so far and that is without Crowder and Horford for a number of games. If they return, the defense and rebounding should come with them. They can press this Warriors team on both ends of the court and they can make life hard, even for Durant, even if they can’t stop him.
Adding Kevin Durant made the Warriors into the heels for most NBA-non-warriors fans. It reminds me most of when the already-fearsome 2003 Yankees added Alex Rodriguez. It just seemed like a Bridge too far. Even more than Lebron’s decision, it has created the impression that the league has a parity problem and that will play out in the next CBA. The Celtics beat the pre-Durant Warriors. They probably couldn’t do it in a seven-game series, but they could pull it off here and there. With Durant, it doesn’t seem possible, but even at 9-2 this season, the Warriors haven’t dominated quite as expected. If this team is just pacing themselves, they could drop this one to a finally-healthy Celtics team. If they do, they should hear even more questions about whether this Superteam isn’t gelling right. It may all be just hype, but it will probably happen anyway.
On the other side. Boston overachieved last season and now have to deal with expectations. Those expectations don’t include hanging with the Warriors, but Boston needs to justify their place in the first division in the East with something more than wins over weak teams. The Celtics are 6-5 and in the middle of the Eastern conference pack, and a few of those losses have been pretty ugly. If they want to make a statement- maybe to some trade candidates or upcoming free agents- this is the game for it. The stakes aren’t as high for the Warriors, but they have last season’s loss to avenge and their newly found role as the bad guys to live up to. Either way, it’s a game that you have to watch.