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No one legitimately debates the Golden State Warriors as the best team in the League with the best chance of capturing another NBA Title. They have the best record at 40/10, winning 80% of their games. But the Boston Celtics have shown that they are fully capable of sparring effectively with the Dubs and coming away with wins.


Right now it looks like the Celtics have the best chance of getting past the Cavaliers and Raptors in the East and meeting Golden State in what would be a very exciting Finals. Here is SI's Rohan Nadarkni on the two rival teams:

Few teams have played the Warriors as well as the Celtics the last few seasons, and Saturday night, both teams brought a playoff-esque energy in their final regular season matchup—a 109-105 win for Golden State, avenging their November loss in Boston. After two hotly contested matchups (against the backdrop of the Cavaliers’ struggles), a Celtics-Warriors Finals tilt looks like it could be a welcome departure from the last three summers.

The Warriors bring out the best in many teams, but few are good enough to maintain that level of focus and energy for a full 48 minutes like the Celtics.

It all starts at the point guard position. Steph Curry can be absolutely omnipotent, and he was just that on Saturday night, pouring in 49 points with 8-of-13 three-pointers. Boston counters with its own force in the backcourt by the name of Kyrie Irving. Kyrie is the motor that runs the Boston machine, and he has led his team to the best record in the East at 35/15. The point guard matchup alone would spur much-needed excitement for NBA fans. Here is SI's Rohan Nadkarni on Irving's effectiveness:

Irving’s fearlessness when playing the Warriors has been apparent in the last two Finals, and it gives this Boston team an advantage compared to years past. Considering the craziness in Cleveland, Irving looks smarter and smarter every day for jumping ship, and his one-on-one rivalry with Stephen Curry is one of the league’s more compelling dramas.

The Celtics are facing two current issues that may ultimately affect any potential Finals outcome, one positive and one negative. Celtics guard, Marcus Smart, is currently out of action for two weeks with a self-inflicted hand injury. He could not have chosen a worse time for this to happen, with the trade deadline looming coupled with the fact that this is a contract year for him. He is a potent weapon on defense, particularly against the Warriors.



On the positive side, I have taken the liberty of raising Gordon Hayward's chances of returning to action for the playoffs from slim to significant. If I see videos of him shooting jumpers and performing movement drills in the next week or two, I would up the chances to good. Thus far, he has shortened every timeline I have set for him. Gordon's presence would change everything. Golden State is a veteran team, and Boston starts a rookie (Jayson Tatum) and a second-year guy (Jaylen Brown).

Hayward is a veteran-of-the wars and would add scoring, rebounding and playmaking, while contributing much-needed depth. The Warriors go 12-deep with players logging 13 or more minutes per game. The Celtics go nine-deep for the 13-plus minutes. One final thought from SI's Rohan Nadkarni:

Still, if all goes as expected, and the Warriors cruise through the West and LeBron’s reign finally comes to an end, the Celtics may be the NBA’s final hope in preventing a third Golden State title in four years. Boston won’t be favored, but if these two regular-season matchups are any indication (and they very well may not be!), the Celtics at least don’t appear to be completely overmatched.

Ultimately, the Celts have shown an ability to push the Warriors in ways that are more convincing than anyone else in the East so far this season. What that means is open to interpretation. But Boston looks as ready as anyone, or really more ready, to take on the challenge of a Finals matchup with Golden State.

Saturday's contest between the two teams came down to the wire, and Boston was playing an away game without Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart. That tells a lot. The Warriors are rated first in offensive rating, while Boston ranks 18th. That also tells a lot. The Celtics defense is tops in the league, but they struggle to score when Irving is not in the game. Hayward's possible return would fix much of that, and Danny Ainge can always work a deal for a scorer prior to the trade deadline. Season-ending injuries to the Pelicans DeMarcus Cousins and the Grizzlies Mike Conley may provide opportunities for Ainge. There are 11 days remaining until the deadline.

Follow Tom at @TomLaneHC

Top photo via Matt West/The Boston Herald
Bottom photo via Matt Stone/The Boston Herald

Tom Lane 1/28/2018 06:55:00 AM Edit
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