After an unprecedented offseason for the Boston Celtics, the start of their regular season has been just as ludicrous, if not more so. The tragedy of Gordon Hayward’s opening-night ankle injury along with two straight losses made the start of the new year a nightmare rather than the compelling beginning that Celtics fans imagined.
In the face of extreme adversity, a Celtics team with only four returning players has managed to win 13 straight games. Taking down opponents like the Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs, and the surprise Magic all in convincing fashion, Boston also came back from an 18-point deficit on the road against an uber-talented Thunder team. They defeated the Toronto Raptors without Kyrie Irving and unexpectedly triumphed over the Charlotte Hornets without anyone from the “Big Three.”
The Celtics’ winning streak will face its toughest challenge yet from the visiting Golden State Warriors on Thursday night. The defending champions own the second-best record in the NBA at 11-3 and have the highest net rating in the league at 14.4, while Boston sits in second with a 7.8 mark. The Warriors are the class of the NBA, and extending the winning streak to 14 games over this Golden State squad would be huge for the Celtics. However, Boston will have the opportunity to see how they measure up against the best team in basketball, which adds another level of intrigue in Thursday’s game.
Golden State head coach Steve Kerr called the Celtics, “The team of the future in the East,” on Tuesday. It’s becoming clearer that the Warriors envision the Celtics as their primary foe once LeBron James’ reign over the Eastern conference comes to an end, so it will be useful for Boston to get a sense of how far away they are from their possible NBA Finals opponent.
In addition, the Celtics can get an idea of how good they are in general. Right now they’re 13-2 against mostly inferior teams. With the amount of poor play coming out of Cleveland at the moment and the widespread inconsistency in the east, Golden State is the best measuring stick for this young, talented Boston team.
While looking at how the Celtics match up against the Warriors this year as opposed to seasons past, Boston is probably the best-equipped team to defend the league’s best offense. When the Warriors go small with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala, they’re a near impossible cover. Your best chance is probably to hope they miss the shots they generate.
The Celtics only played the full Warriors squad once last season since Durant was hurt the second time around, and the Warriors won in convincing fashion 104-88. Boston was only down by seven going into halftime, but then a 31-9 third quarter buried the Celtics for good. With a perimeter defense of Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder, Brad Stevens didn’t have much of an answer for Kevin Durant and most of the switches the Warriors were able to generate.
Kevin Durant is impossible to stop, but there’s really no hope if you switch a 6-foot-2 Bradley on him or a player not known for his defense like Kelly Olynyk. Bradley is a great individual defender, but his versatility on defense was limited to back-court opponents. That’s why we’ve seen the Warriors have such a hard time against the Celtics without a player of Durant’s caliber. Bradley and Smart were able to contain Curry and Thompson just enough such that they forced the Warriors’ supporting cast to make shots. Add Durant to the mix, and Boston’s matchup advantage went out the window.
When Danny Ainge basically cleared out his roster from last season, he added a number of bigger, longer players that could defend multiple positions. Along with Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Smart, the Celtics have Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, and Semi Ojeleye as players whose value will not go unnoticed against a team like the Warriors.
As good as Bradley and Crowder are as defenders, both were limited in how many positions they could handle. Bradley’s height prevented him from effectively switching on small forwards and small-ball 4s, while Crowder’s didn’t have the lateral quickness to consistently keep guards in front of him. By contrast, Brown, Tatum, Morris and Ojeleye can all guard at least four spots on the floor. The Warriors are 27th in the NBA in turnover percentage, so the Celtics will need to take advantage of their newly acquired length to force Golden State into uncomfortable possessions.
Also, Boston can still play with a number of bigs without giving up much on switches. Morris, Aron Baynes, and Daniel Theis are a significantly better group than Olynyk, Amir Johnson, and Tyler Zeller in terms of versatility.
In terms of offense, the Celtics have struggled to gain a rhythm early this season, as CelticsBlog’s Bobby Manning details here, and the Warriors are one of the best defenses in the NBA. Boston does have Al Horford though, who will pose some matchup problems for Steve Kerr if Draymond Green can’t stop when they go small. Other than that, The Celtics will have to utilize their two-man game between Horford and Irving to generate some points, and Tatum and Brown will need to have solid games for the Celtics to come away with this one.
This game should be a fun one. The Garden will certainly be rocking as the Celtics go for their 14th straight win. Either way, Thursday night can be an opportunity to learn about the Celtics’ future this season and beyond. Against the NBA’s ultimate measuring stick, Boston can get an idea of what they can accomplish this year and how far away they are from a Western conference powerhouse. The good news is that this Celtics team matches up much better with Golden State than last season’s incarnation.