Tonight, the Golden State Warriors face a very unfamiliar foe—an NBA team that has a better regular season record. Rarely have Steph Curry and company looked up to find another team sitting atop the standings during their multi-year run as basketball’s best. The Boston Celtics have scrapped their way to a 13-2 start that seemed unthinkable after star forward Gordon Hayward went down with a gruesome injury less than six minutes into the season. Yet here they are, riding a 13-game win streak. This should be a great barometer for both teams. Here are five key matchups that Warriors fans should watch as their team tries to end Boston's winning streak while extending their own to eight games.
Steph Curry vs. Kyrie Irving
Kyrie had peaked as LeBron’s running mate. As Warriors fans recall from the 2016 NBA Finals, that peak had some spectacular moments. Still, Irving was locked into his role as an elite scoring guard who would never be mentioned in MVP conversations. Given more responsibility as a Celtic, most of Irving’s traditional stats haven’t improved just yet. Once Hayward went down, it seemed that he would be closer to 30 points per game than the 20 he’s currently averaging. On the positive side, Irving is averaging a career-high 1.9 steals per game to go along with a career-low 1.9 turnovers.
His impact goes beyond numbers, though. Under Stevens, Irving looks the part of a leader for the first time in his career. He’s not living up to his hero-ball reputation, instead embracing beautiful ball movement. He’s engaged on defense on a nightly basis and seems hell-bent on proving he can succeed without King James. For the Celtics to give the Warriors any serious trouble, Irving will have to play like the MVP he aspires to be.
Despite Kyrie’s ongoing evolution as the “best player on a good team” for the first time in his career, he’s still going to be the second-best point guard on the court tonight. Expect Steph to rise to the occasion and remind everyone of that.
Draymond Green vs. Al Horford
Horford was rock solid for the Celtics on both ends of the floor last year. He’s always been a plus defender and a great passer, and over the past few seasons, he added a reliable three-point shot to his offensive repertoire. If there’s a knock on the big man, it’s that he sometimes disappears in big games. If you watched him play against the Cavaliers during last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the phrase “max contract player” didn’t exactly come to mind.
So far this season, Horford seems like a man possessed. He’s statistically productive, per usual, but his aggressiveness jumps off the screen. As a 31-year-old veteran and the only returning member of Boston’s starting five from a year ago, Horford has taken it upon himself to set the tone for what is currently the league’s best defensive team.
Against the Warriors, Horford is Boston’s attempt to give Golden State a taste of its own Draymond medicine—a versatile big man who anchors a defense, hits open shots, and creates for his teammates. Not to mention, Horford and Irving have already formed one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the league.
Still, Draymond gets the edge. He’s the reason the Warriors can win tough road games when they’re not at their best. He’s the best defender in the NBA, and he’s already passed the “show up in big games” test with flying colors—more than Horford can say for himself. Can a rejuvenated Horford be more impactful than Green? I’ll believe it when I see it.
Kevin Durant vs. The Young Jays
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have Celtics fans excited about the future. Brown showed flashes of potential as a rookie, and he’s still a bit raw at just 21 years old, but he’s growing up quickly. Hayward’s injury opened up a lot of minutes for the second-year player, and Brown has taken advantage, scoring nearly 15 points per game on better than 37% shooting from deep. Most importantly, he seems fearless on the court. While it may not have been the best decision to poke the bear that is LeBron James during the Eastern Conference Finals, Brown was one of the only Celtics to actually show up each game during the series.
Tatum has shown no signs of growing pains whatsoever through the first few weeks of his rookie year. He’s as polished offensively as you’ll find for a 19-year-old kid, and his length has made an impact on defense. He’s already made some big-time buckets, and his three-point shooting, while not sustainable at 49%, is light years beyond what anyone expected for his rookie campaign.
While undoubtedly impressive, neither of these athletic, young wings can hold a candle to last year’s NBA Finals MVP. Durant is playing at an elite level on both ends of the court, blocking shots like a defensive specialist center and scoring like his usual self. While Brown, in particular, will try to get physical whenever he’s matched up with KD, he won’t be able to stop him. Because, well, no one can.
Shaun Livingston vs. Marcus Smart
While these two players may not match up very much, it’s worth looking at the backup point guard situations for each team since the second unit runs will play a huge role in determining the outcome of the game. Shaun Livingston filled in admirably for Steph Curry against Orlando, scoring 16 points and dishing out 6 assists as the Warriors pushed their win streak to seven games. He’s a steadying force who can take almost any opposing guard into the post for his patented turnaround jumper. He moves off the ball with the savviness of Klay Thompson but inside the arc.
Smart has continued to improve with each passing year in the NBA—except as a shooter. He’s still one of the worst bricklayers in NBA history. Still, Smart has made a significant impact on the Celtics in a variety of ways. He’s grown as a playmaker, averaging a career-best 5.5 assists per game. He’s quick to recognize a mismatch and take smaller guards to the weight room. And then there’s his calling card—defense. Smart is a nightmare for guards and forwards alike. He can switch in just about any situation. At just 6’4”, Smart uses his broad build to take on much taller players, similar to Draymond.
Livingston and Smart impact the game in very different ways, but both are extremely important to the success of their respective teams. Both the Warriors and the Celtics should feel great about the players who anchor their second units.
Steve Kerr vs. Brad Stevens
Needless to say, Steve Kerr is an outstanding coach. Giving Stevens an edge here is more about where each team is right now based on their rosters, and Stevens has done more with less through the first few weeks. Kerr knows that the regular season is a marathon and not a sprint, and his veteran squad understands it as well. He has the luxury of taking the long view. Take the home loss to Detroit. While certainly frustrating, Kerr knows it was a powerful lesson—a reminder that the Warriors aren’t invincible when they’re shooting well if they’re also carelessly handing the ball to the other team. Looking at the current win streak, I'd say the players got the message.
Stevens is coaching a young, overhauled roster and getting every ounce of effort they have for 48 minutes per game. “It’s just the regular season” has never applied to a Stevens-coached team on any given night. They play incredibly sound team defense, and they don’t beat themselves with dumb mistakes. If the Warriors come out flat, Boston will punch them in the mouth. Stevens will make sure of it.
The fact that Warriors at Celtics in November is must-see television tells you everything you need to know about the entertaining state of the NBA. Brad Stevens will have his team ready to play as they aim to push their impressive win streak to 14 games. I think the Warriors are up for the challenge. In the unlikely event that this young Celtics team makes it all the way to the NBA Finals, Steph, KD, and company will want to leave a lasting impression on Boston’s floor tonight.