We’ve reached the point in the season where any resounding win for the Celtics mystifies, even as it confirms an undeniable truth. Boston is a very good team—maybe a great one—too often undone by introspection. Even the most minor of losing streaks risks a full-blown crisis. An innocuous post-game question prompts a dissertation on the nature of leadership, celebrity, or, somehow, life itself. There are so many things that should come easy to the Celtics that don’t, which in itself is the source of much angst. This is a team that seems to genuinely believe in its talent and yet acts in a way that conveys a deep-seated anxiety. Boston has navel gazed so aggressively as to tie itself in knots.
So naturally, after losing five of their previous six games, those same Celtics would pummel the defending champion Warriors, 128-95, in front of a shell-shocked crowd at Oracle Arena. The night became a perfect showcase of everything Boston can be. Dominance is always possible for a roster this loaded, so long as the Celtics pull together in rhythm. They did so on Tuesday night without the slightest drag, effectively ending the game within 36 minutes. Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward played in perfect concert. Any attempted run by the Warriors was quickly thwarted. Every fast break was matched, every three-pointer answered. Boston waited out careless plays and seized on every opportunity.
These were the Celtics that Kevin Durant warned of—the team he insisted would be ready in the end. "They're right up there at the top," Durant told reporters this week. "They've been losing a couple games, but they've got the top talent, some of the top talent on that team, so they'll be fine once the playoffs start." Perhaps that’s true. But why did Boston save its masterclass for this game rather than its bout with the Rockets two days prior? Why not flex in this same way against the Raptors last week, or the Bucks the week before? How is it that Hayward dropped 30 on the Warriors after scoring just 26 points in his previous five games combined?
If anyone with the Celtics knew these answers, the team’s every issue could be resolved. Instead, Jaylen Brown referred to the vibe around the team as “toxic” in the lead-up to a game Boston would control beyond question. Whatever invisible forces bring the Celtics to play brilliantly in some games and incoherently in others may well be beyond them. On this particular occasion, the Warriors played their own vital part. Boston isn’t the only team in need of a wake-up call; Golden State has earned every benefit of the doubt in terms of competing for the title, but in the moment must still come to terms with losing five of their last eight games. What should be a powerhouse team has now played crummy defense for the better part of two months.
No one should take Tuesday’s game—a game that both Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston missed—as any sort of indictment of Golden State’s title chances. The Warriors remain the presumptive favorites. They simply aren’t in a position to trifle with the top teams in the East, a recurring problem this season. Long before this latest blowout, the Warriors suffered notable losses to the Bucks, Raptors, and Sixers. Whichever team makes it out of the East will be deserving of the Warriors’ attention. Unfortunately for that team, they’ll surely get it. Part of what makes Golden State so formidable in the playoffs is the specificity of the format. When every strategy and matchup can be perfectly tailored, no team benefits more than the contender with an array of high-level defenders, a few stray All-Stars, and two of the best offensive players in the history of the sport.
Even still, there must be some apprehension in the Warriors botching a game so completely as this. The way DeMarcus Cousins was targeted on defense—a growing trend in recent weeks—isn’t at all reassuring, to say nothing of the team’s broader disconnect. The carelessness with which Golden State threw the ball around (and too often, away) must hit a raw nerve in Steve Kerr and his staff. The Warriors have a greater margin for error than any team in the league, but that alone isn’t reason to push it.
"If we want to be the team that we want to be come April, you can't continue to talk about it and talk about it and expect to be able to slip a switch,” Stephen Curry said. “At some point these next 16 games, we have to show it."
Boston faces a harsher burden of proof. In the back of their minds, the Warriors will always have the security of a team that has won back-to-back championships. The Celtics have only the vision of what their roster should be and the friction in their efforts to bring it to life. Tuesday night was a welcome relief—a near-perfect game at a time Boston needed it most.
"Hopefully,” Hayward said, “we choose to play this way tomorrow."