After completing their sweep of the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors brazenly called out the Cavaliers to come out and play in The Finals even before Cleveland had wrapped up the ECF. Warriors owner Joe Lacob said that his team had “unfinished business” with Cleveland. Steph Curry has talked about wanting to do something about the Cavs’ fun. It’s been a fated rematch as the third installment of the Cavs-Warriors trilogy with only one team serving as a road block to destiny: the Boston Celtics.
OK, so maybe Boston wasn’t exactly a road block. After getting absolutely throttled in every game in the Garden and losing the series 4-1, the Celtics were more speed bump or bug splatter on the windshield of Cleveland’s nearly perfect post-season. Notwithstanding Isaiah Thomas’ absence, the conference finals served as a stark reality check that it’s Cleveland and then everybody else in the East, including the Celtics.
But maybe it won’t matter anyway. Despite steamrolling the Pacers, Raptors, and Celtics en route to LeBron’s 7th straight championship series, many experts have anointed Golden State the clear cut favorite in these Finals. Eight out of ten writers at SI have the Warriors over the Cavs (many of them in 5 or fewer games), 6 out of 7 at CBS, and all five ESPN experts picked GSW.
But here’s the thing: the Celtics could have beat the Warriors.
Call it homerism. Call it a hot take. Call it both. The Celtics could have beat the Warriors. Yes, “coulda woulda shoulda” is a fruitless exercise often reserved for the bitter sports fan, but I’m not bitter. The Celtics had a great season. It’s widely agreed accepted that they overachieved in 2017 and that their future is very bright, but I’m not talking about Markelle Fultz or Gordon Hayward or future draft picks or cap space. I’m talking about beating the Warriors today.
Please indulge this bit of fan fiction. Ever since Jae Crowder opened up about the recruiting of Kevin Durant and sharing the blueprint on how to beat the Warriors, I’m convinced that they have their number. Boston being on KD’s final dance card tells me that. Two wins at Oracle over the last two years tells me that. Ainge’s personnel moves and Stevens’ coaching style tells me that. This was a team built to beat Golden State.
Unfortunately, the Cavs are still the Cavs and LeBron James is better than ever. This is a league of match ups and taking advantage of another team’s weaknesses and there are very few antidotes to a heavy dose of LeBron in a seven game series.
In Cleveland’s domination of Boston, we saw a Cavs team bully ball the Celtics to submission. In a series where Cleveland outscored Boston by a hundred total points, they were lights out on the perimeter but when push came to shove, that’s exactly what they did. They shoved. LeBron and Love were bigger and stronger than most of their iso defenders and the Celtics didn’t have an answer for Tristan Thompson. They made size matter. Frankly, the Celtics just aren’t built to beat them and maybe more importantly, won’t be built to beat them in the future either.
To their credit, the Warriors have been mauling teams out west, but it’s just such a different game. Golden State is more of a skills team and the first great dynasty in the modern game era. They move the ball like Bruce Lee talks about water and on defense, they switch everything to short circuit your offense. And yet, I’m sure the Celtics would have given the Warriors a run for the Larry O’Brien. They have the best perimeter defense five-man rotation in the league and have proven to be worthy opponents in the regular season. And while they don’t print “defense wins meaningless regular season games in March” t-shirts, as the Celtics continue to add more pieces to their championship puzzle, understand that every move is geared to beat teams like the Warriors. This is the evolution of the game.
When I proposed a CelticsBlog roundtable on the Celtics’ hypothetical chances against the Warriors, my fellow writers were quick to respond: “LOL!” “Nope.” “They would have been crushed.” Tonight in Game 1, we’ll see how Cleveland’s physicality matches up against Golden State’s positionless versatility. If they get creamed, Boston fans might use the transitive property and comfort themselves knowing that if Cleveland slaughtered us, Golden State would have slaughtered us more (if that’s even possible). But I think deep down, if Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, or Kevin Durant go off, a lot of Celtics faithful will say under their breath, “that doesn’t happen if Avery’s on him. Marcus Smart would have given them nightmares. Jaylen Brown isn’t scared of the moment. Brad Stevens would have coached circles around Mike Brown.” Coulda woulda shoulda, but the Celtics could have beat the Warriors.