Measuring sticks are a funny thing. Some will tell you it is too early to be calling a game in mid-November anything more than a game in mid-November. Conversely, some will say that games in March and April can’t be judged for much because teams might be in or out of the playoff race, or positioning themselves for the postseason. So, when can a game really be called “big”?
At the expense of upsetting the “It’s too early!” crowd, tonight’s Celtics vs. Warriors game feels like an awfully big one. Boston has won 13 in a row, after dropping their first two games of the season. Golden State is on a seven game run (winning all seven by double digits) and are handling teams with relative ease.
Rarely do we get a game, at any point in the season, between two teams on streaks like these. That alone makes it a treat, but there are even more storylines to watch.
First up: this game pits the unstoppable force (the Warriors offense) against the immovable object (the Celtics defense). Golden State comes in with an Offensive Rating of 117.1. That is 4.2 points better than the second best Offensive Rating in the NBA. Boston boasts a Defensive Rating of 97.8, which is 2.6 points better than the second best team.
It goes even further than that. Golden State has the NBA’s best Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) at a whopping 59.7 percent. If you are unfamiliar with eFG%, it essentially accounts for a three-point shot being worth more than a two-pointer, so it weights the value of each field goal attempt. The Warriors are shooting nearly five percentage points better than the next closest team, the Toronto Raptors, who are at 54.8 percent. A five percent spread is fairly absurd and helps tell the story of just how dominant the Warriors offense is.
On the other end of the floor, no one is getting after it like the Celtics. They are allowing an eFG% of 48 percent. That is pacing the NBA by .7 percentage points over the next closest team. As important as not letting their opponents shoot well, Boston is also all over the glass.
Coaches often say defense doesn’t end until you have the ball. All too often the last few years, the Celtics didn’t take care of the boards. This year they boast a defensive rebounding percentage of 81.3 percent, good for third in the NBA. Going from 5’9’’, 6’2’’, and 6’7’’ in the backcourt and on the wing to 6’3’’, 6’7’’ and 6’8’’ has made a huge difference.
That size upgrade shows up in other ways too. Multiple times this year, the Celtics have found themselves at the end of the shot clock and needing someone to create a look. The last two seasons, creating a shot was Isaiah Thomas’s responsibility and more often than not, he did.
This year, the team is trusting the player with the best look to create a shot and more often than not, it is working. Jayson Tatum, all of 19 years old, has become adept at getting to the rim, using his impressive wingspan to swoop and scoop layups off the glass as the clock expires. Kyrie Irving is one of the best end-of-clock creators in the game. Jaylen Brown uses brute force to muscle his way inside. Al Horford has either finessed his way around players or has powered through them. Even Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier have created good looks in late clock situations.
Having multiple creators —as opposed to just one— has allowed the Celtics to run sets that take longer portions of the shot clock to get a shot. If the set breaks down, the player with the ball can make something happen, versus having to look for Isaiah Thomas to bail them out. While massive late-game point explosions and The King In The Fourth were fun, having a balanced offense full of creators is more sustainable long-term.
A team full of creators is exactly what Boston will see on Thursday night against the Warriors. Golden State has set the standard in the NBA, with four to five players on the floor at all times that can make something happen for themselves or their teammates. The Warriors ping the ball around the floor at a dizzying pace, averaging 31.3 assists per game. That mark tops the next closest team by nearly five assists per game. All that passing does come with a downside of 17.4 turnovers per game, third highest in the NBA. If the Celtics can use some of their length for deflections and steals, they can take advantage of Golden State’s occasional bouts of sloppiness.
But most of all, the Warriors are the NBA’s gold standard right now. All teams are measured against them. A win against Golden State counts just once in the standings, but feels much bigger. Even a close loss, while counting the same as any other loss, carries less of a sting. The Celtics have won 13 straight, and while no one wants to see that run end, if it happens in a tight game against the NBA’s best team, it won’t hurt nearly as much.
The Celtics’ talent and potential will be measured in this game no matter what, but take heed in how you react, regardless of the result. A win doesn’t mean the Celtics are title contenders. A loss doesn’t mean they aren’t. But if Golden State blows the doors off Boston, it could show just how far the Celtics have to go. If the Warriors limp out of TD Garden after the Celtics handle them with ease, it might be time to re-adjust just how good this team is.
One last note —and this one might be as important as all of them— Golden State averages 29.1 years of age. They have a core group of players who have been to three consecutive NBA Finals. They might be in the midst of one of the best runs of dominance the NBA. There is no longer any question about who the best team in the NBA is.
But…no less an authority than the Warriors head coach Steve Kerr thinks he knows who his team’s future challenger is. Speaking at practice Kerr said of the Celtics, "It sure looks like Boston is the team of the future in the East, with the assets that they still have and their young talent and their coaching, and Kyrie [Irving] is amazing. That looks like a team that is going to be at the top of the East for a long time to come. Whether their time is now or the future, that's to be determined, but they sure look like they want it to be right now."
What the quote doesn’t mention directly, but is important to note, is that Boston averages just 24.4 years of age. And they skew even younger with players who actually play. So, while the Celtics can measure themselves against the Warriors tonight, and they should, we won’t likely know how close the guys in green are to Banner 18 until a season or two from now.
What we do know is that we can relish the ride, especially when the season looked in doubt just five minutes in. While the Celtics are good now, they’ll be even better when Gordon Hayward returns. And that is when a judgement of this team’s talent will seem fair.
Until then, enjoy the underdog status, because it won’t be here for long. NBA dominance isn’t long-lived and Boston is poised to become the new bully on the block.