Five points. That's all.
The last time the Celtics played the Warriors back in March of the 2014-2015 season, Boston was up by as many as 26 points in the Garden, but lost by 5 because of a fourth quarter collapse fueled by Steph Curry's 37 points.
And now we're here. Golden State returns as NBA champs, undefeated and on a 23-game winning streak. Personnel-wise, nothing much has changed and yet, they've seemingly found another gear and are better than before. Boston, on the other hand, has been a bit Jekyl & Hyde. When they're good, they're good. They're 4th in the league in margin of victory, but they also have a loss to the Nets and been blown out by the Hawks and Magic. They're very good defensively (4th in the NBA in defensive rating at 97.0) and are 12-6 since starting the season 1-3. They've battled injuries in the back court all season, but after an impressive win against the Bulls, they're playing their best basketball of the year.
The question is: can they make up those five points and hand the Warriors their first loss? Absolutely.
First, let's just gauge the temperature of the team and there's nobody better to ask than a player that was with Golden State last season and is with Boston today, David Lee:
"A huge part of the NBA overall is confidence and those guys are as confident as you can be right now," said Lee. "Their attention to detail is great."
"Obviously it will be a fun atmosphere considering their record right now, but to be honest, this has a lot more to do with us just continuing to do what we did last night [against Chicago], and that's take strides," said Lee. "I mean, of course we're excited to play this game - you're always excited to play the best in the league - but right now, at least me personally, it's kind of business as usual."
It may be business as usual from a mental standpoint, but the Celtics will have to step up their game and play near-perfect basketball for 48 minutes Friday night if they hope to come out on top. Lee believes they have the tools to do so.
"They're a very good basketball team - they're a great basketball team," Lee said of the Warriors. "I just think if we go out there and do the things we're capable of doing, we're gonna have a shot; especially here, with the way the building's going to be."
On paper, the Celtics are defensively built to beat the defending champs. Over half of GSW's points are generated by their three wing players: Curry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes. Barnes won't play and at the posting time of this article, Thompson was a game time decision, but injuries aside (ahem, Marcus Smart will be out too, mind you), Boston has put together one of the best defensive back courts in the league with Smart, Bradley, and Crowder. Even if everybody was healthy, the Celtics would have made it difficult.
Like the Celtics, the Warriors are difficult to scheme against because there's so much randomness to them, but you can try to stick to your core principles. First and foremost, you have to decide what you're going to do with Curry. He's the focal point of their offense. Avery Bradley is the most likely defender to check Curry, but don't be surprised if Evan Turner and Jae Crowder get that assignment, too. Curry can get his shot off at any time because he's got one of the best handles in the league and gets freed up very effectively off picks from Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green. A sliver of air space and he'll launch a three.
Last season, Stevens cautioned the team not to overreact to Curry's highlight plays and stay the course; a 55-yard field goal is worth the same 3 points as a 7-yard field goal, a touchdown from the goal line is worth the same as hail mary. Like they've been doing all year, the Celtics will probably not go under any screens and ICE Curry towards the sideline. Bradley should be able to ride his hip, but Turner and Crowder's size could turn him over as he tries to pass out of traffic.
And so what if Curry goes off? In Golden State's close wins/near losses (wins less than or equal to +8), he's put up 31 & 4, 34 & 6, 37 & 9, 40 & 4, 26 & 5, 44 & 7, and 29 & 10. It's not the end of the world if Curry tears it up.
Offensively, I'd expect the Celtics to be as aggressive as they were against the Bulls on Wednesday night. That starts with IT4. When Boston faced Golden State back in March, they had just acquired Isaiah Thomas and he wasn't fully acclimated into the system. As the team's sixth man, he was acting as instant offense off the bench and was just chucking up shots. In his first five games in green, Thomas averaged 8 three point attempts a night; against Golden State, he shot 3-for-11. That was Thomas then. This season, he's an entirely different player worthy of All Star consideration.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup, Thomas has been more dynamic as a playmaker and is averaging his highest assist-to-turnover rate in his career. As a starter, he's not getting to the line as much as he did when he came off the bench at the ends of the first and third quarters, but the team as a whole is averaging more FTA's in large part to his aggressiveness. If Curry defends him, Thomas should eat him up. Lee said about the potential match up:
"I think Steph would be the first to admit, Isaiah, when he was with Sacramento, with his quickness, he was always a tough matchup for Steph," said Lee. "Isaiah's quickness gives a lot of guards trouble in the league, and his ability to not only be quick, but to make shots as well... he's going to be a tough match up going the other way."
And the more Curry has to work on defense, the less energy he'll have on offense. Both the Celtics and Warriors play at a high pace with Boston 5th in the league at 101.19 possessions per 48 minutes and Golden State 3rd at 101.62. The Celtics are arguably the deeper team and with injuries mounting for the Warriors, they should ramp up even more. It's just a hunch, but I'll bet that Stevens goes with Terry Rozier Friday night vs. James Young despite Young's successful stints of late. Rozier is more of a ball hawk on defense and a driver on offense and the team is constantly going to want to put pressure on the Warriors back court.
Before this incredible 23 game winning streak and before winning last year's championship, the Golden State Warriors were just a team. A very good team, but ultimately, just a team. But after years of thoughtful drafting, development, and signing key vets, they went from being just a team to champs. That's where the Celtics find themselves in Year #3 of the rebuild. Friday night's game is just another regular season game, but it could also be a launching pad for the franchise.