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. Boston managed to keep Saturday’s game close despite another difficult night for Jayson Tatum and heavy minutes for Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin in the absence of Marcus Smart. Jaylen Brown helped pick up the slack with 20 points, and Kyrie Irving had another magnificent game against Golden State, scoring 37 points on 13-of-18 shooting.
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.
Curry, by the way, was spectacular Saturday. He scored 49 points on only 24 shots and hit 8-of-13 threes in an MVP-type performance. Curry’s big night was enough to overcome subpar games from Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson—the latter of whom has struggled mightily in both matchups with the Celtics this season.
There’s simply a different energy to Warriors-Celtics than any other cross-conference rival for Golden State. The Cavs often look defeated. The Raptors don‘t seem to earn the Dubs’ best. Boston is not quite a lock to be playing in June, but the Celtics right now look like the Eastern challenger that could give Golden State the most trouble.
Of course, it’s a little sobering to have this conversation in January of an NBA season. It’s what the Warriors have done to the competition. They’ve reduced teams to hoping they even have a chance, and they have fans and writers searching for the smallest possible signs of vulnerability. As entertaining as the NBA’s regular season has been, the playoffs have been dulled by the Warriors, and with Golden State’s effort waxing and waning between each quarter, it’s difficult to put its regular season games in any broader context.
But if all we have to go with is what we’ve seen on the court, the Celtics are currently the East’s best chance at knocking off Golden State, provided both teams get to the Finals, of course. LeBron is still looming, and his presence is so large the Cavs are still seen as a favorite despite their historically inept defense. It almost wouldn’t be surprising if the Warriors went 16–0 in the playoffs, but it would be unfair to completely ignore the Rockets.
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.