Finals Preview? Celtics-Warriors Brings Best Bet, Most Intriguing Matchup

OAKLAND -- Should the Warriors reach the NBA Finals, as anticipated, there are three legitimate candidates to meet them in June. The most troublesome of the three comes to Oracle Arena on Saturday.

The Boston Celtics are hell to play against.

"They put a lot of pressure on the ball," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

"Their defensive intensity has been top level for the whole season," Kevin Durant said.

The Warriors' experience with Boston's top-rated defense (99.8 rating) goes deeper than their 92-88 loss to the Celtics last Nov. 16 at TD Garden.

Since sweeping two games from the Celtics in 2014-15, their second season under coach Brad Stevens, the Warriors are 2-3 against Boston. They've lost the last two in Oakland. In none of those games did the Warriors shot 50 percent from the field and three times they were under 45 percent, with a low of 39.3.

Put simply, there is no resemblance between the steel door of the Celtics and the screen door of the defending Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers.

The Warriors entered all five of those games against Boston as the highest-scoring team in the NBA. Only once, the double-overtime marathon on Dec. 11, 2015 in Boston, did they reach or surpass their average. They've averaged no fewer than 114.9 points per game in every season since 2014-15 but only 101.6 against the Celtics.

Stephen Curry over those five games: 37.5 percent from the field, with 27 turnovers.

Klay Thompson over those five games: 41.0 percent from the field.

The Warriors over those five games: 43.5 percent, including 32.9 percent from deep.

And this season's Celtics are the best defensive team Stevens has had. The offseason additions of Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes -- along with improved second-year guard Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum -- has made Boston more versatile and more physical.

"It takes you out of your offense a lot," Durant said.

"But we've got guys that can score one-on-one and I don't think teams want to switch everything with us, especially when you've got so many little guards," he added. "They don't want to switch little guards on Klay or myself, or have bigs on Steph on the perimeter or on Draymond (Green) in the post. We have guys that can exploit some matchups. They can't bog us down a little bit and make us stagnant."

For a team that could have been seriously damaged by the loss of big-ticket free agent Gordon Hayward on opening night, the Celtics have fared quite well. And it's because of the defense.

"They've got a lot of guys who can switch," Kerr said. "They've done a good job filling that roster with versatile wings (such as) Jaylen Brown, Tatum, Hayward when he's healthy and Morris.

"And, then, Kyrie is spectacular. We know him awfully well, from a different uniform. They're just really, really well coached, great defensively."

When the teams met in November, Curry totaled nine points on 3-of-14 shooting. Thompson had 13, on 5-of-18 shooting. The Warriors were hurt by 15 turnovers, leading to 17 Boston points, but they were undone by their 40.2-percent shooting.

Their offensive frustrations led to errors of haste and hyper-aggression on defense, where the committed 24 fouls, giving the Celtics 38 free throws. That was more than enough to overcome Boston's 32.9 percent shooting.

It's a mistake the Warriors will have to correct to expand the path to victory Saturday.

"We want to be aggressive, but we want to make sure that we're not putting teams in the bonus early. That takes our momentum away," Durant said. "With them being on the line so much, that slowed us down a little bit.

"I'm saying all of that to say we've got to lock in without fouling and we can't put them on the line and leave it in the ref's hands if we want to win."

Celtics architect Danny Ainge has carefully crafted a roster that, um, looks a lot like that of the Warriors. Irving is the singular talent, much like Curry. Brown is the two-way ace, much like Thompson. Horford and Green are power forwards who can hold their own at both ends against bigger players. Baynes is the banger and screener, much like Zaza Pachulia. Marcus Smart is a defensive disruptor/stopper whose scoring is a bonus, much like Andre Iguodala.

As good as Tatum has been and Hayward might be once he returns, they are no better than poor imitations of Durant.

No shame in that; there isn't a team on earth that can match up evenly with Durant, who may be best positioned to take advantage of whatever comes his way in what might be a preview of what lies ahead.

The Cavaliers may come out of the East, but that would require a serious comeback. The Raptors can't be counted out, but they have some serious postseason demons.

There are barriers to clear, lines to cross and hoops to shoot through for the Warriors and Celtics to meet in The Finals, but there are good reasons to bet that way. And better reasons to believe that would be the most intriguing series.

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