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.
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