In honor of the late, great Muhammad Ali, I'll start with a phrase that's often mentioned in the fight game: styles make fights.

And if the first two games of the 2016 NBA Finals are any indication, this match is close to being over. Sure, a series doesn't start until you win on the other team's home floor and whenever the best player of this generation, LeBron James, is on the downside of an 0-2 hole, it's hard to dismiss a team that has far and away been the best in the Eastern Conference.

With that said, the idea of a Warriors sweep is becoming increasingly more realistic. Going back to the 2015 NBA Finals, Golden State has won their last seven contests against Cleveland, outscoring them by 130 points in that span. Playing the majority of last year's series without Kyrie Irving and the entire series without Kevin Love (Kelly Olynyk with the assist), Cleveland pulled out two games by playing big, slowing the pace, and mucking up the action. Golden State countered by going small, playing their vaunted "Death Lineup" of Green, Iguodala, Barnes, Thompson and Curry en route to their first championship in 40 years.

The talent gap was no longer an excuse as Irving and Love were healthy entering this year's Finals. However, it appears through two games what was gained with the presence of the stars only exacerbated Cleveland's issue: it's almost impossible to beat argubly the greatest team of all time with a collection of players who only have value on one side of the court, not both.

The likes of J.R. Smith, Love and Irving are being exposed defensively on perimeter switches and cuts into the paint. Channing Frye, a key mid-season bench acquisition specifically picked up to stretch the floor against the Warriors, has played just a total of 11 minutes this series because of his defensive deficiencies.

The trio of starters have never been known for their defensive prowess, but they've struggled at their strength as well, shooting a combined 22-69 from the field in the two games. Add that to the players in their rotation who actually bolster their defense (Dellavedova, Jefferson, Thompson, Shumpert) but do not stretch the floor, that enables the Warriors to pack the paint, create turnovers and take away offensive flow from LeBron and company.

On his Dunc'D On Basketball podcast, Sports Illustrated/Cauldron writer Nate Duncan revealed that through the first three quarters of Game 2, Cleveland got points on only eight of twenty-six possessions that ended in isolations or post-ups. Those twenty-six isos/post-ups accounted for over a third of all of their offensive possessions through three quarters. That's inefficient.

So what does any of this have to do with the Boston Celtics?

Well after Golden State's historic season, the NBA has seen blowout after blowout in the postseason. The trend has followed into the championship series, leaving many to wonder which Eastern Conference team would've posed a greater challenge to Golden State?

Of Golden State's nine regular season losses, three came to the hands of east opponents: Milwaukee, Detroit and Boston. The Bucks and Pistons bother Golden State similarly to Oklahoma City as each team features length and athleticism throughout their lineups, but Boston was the only team of the trio to win in Oakland, halting a 54-game regular season home winning streak.

While the Warriors own comfortable wins this season over the other two, both Boston/Golden State contests has been nail-biters, including an 124-119 double overtime Warriors victory where the Celtics had multiple chances to close out the game at the buzzer.

Boston has always played the Stephen Curry-led Warriors tough. Brad Stevens is 1-5 against Golden State, but five contests have been decided by just five points or less. There have even been memorable moments prior to this year's thrillers. In 2014, Curry nailed a game-winning step-back jumper over Kris Humphries for the 99-97 Warriors home win. In 2015, Golden State rallied from a 26-point deficit to pick up the 106-101 victory at the TD Garden.

So why do the Celtics match-up so well with the soon-to-be 2016 champs?

Boston features a number of good (Turner, Rozier) to elite (Smart, Crowder) perimeter defenders players to slow down the high-octane Warriors, but the most valuable player in this equation Avery Bradley.

While Curry still averaged 33.5 points against Boston this year, he shot under 40 percent from the field and committed 17 turnovers. Bradley deserves much of the credit for this as the all-NBA First Team defender is quick enough to stay with Curry on screens either off or on the ball. Occasionally picking up the two-time MVP full court, Bradley's long arms and quick feet are the perfect tools to pester the league's most dangerous offensive threat.

Bradley's defense on Curry was most notably on display three years ago. Two nights after scoring a career high 54 points in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks, Curry was held by Bradley to just 6-22 shooting in Celtics home win.

It's safe to assume this Celtics team would've at least stolen a game in Oakland en route to Banner 18? No.

In the postseason, coaching staffs have more time to prepare for their opponents so while the match-up problems would still exist if healthy, so would Boston's struggles shooting from the perimeter. Post all-star break, the Warriors lacked focus at times defensively as their points per game numbers were near the bottom third of the league, but needless to say, their intensity and attention to detail would differ from a February game in Philadelphia.

Golden State will soon complete the single greatest season in NBA history, but for Celtics fans, take solace in being what Clyde Drexler's Blazers to the '86 Celtics: the cross-conference squad that gave a legendary team nothing but trouble.

Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @PatBernadeau

Patrick Bernadeau 6/07/2016 09:00:00 AM Edit
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