Four teams stand between the Boston Celtics and the top of the Eastern Conference, but don’t tell the Golden State Warriors that. To hear the defending champs tell it, the Celtic’s are the cream of the crop in a suddenly-relevant conference.
Anthony Slater of The Athletic reports that, within the confines of the Warriors organization, no team east of the Mississippi has earned as much respect as the C’s:
And in the longer view, these prognosticators still mostly see Celtic green. In an informal poll by The Athletic this past week, spread across a large chunk of the Warriors’ locker room and coaching staff, about 75 percent of those asked still pick Boston as the team to beat in the East and Boston as their most likely Finals challenger, should they get through the West for a fifth straight time.
That’s certainly a lot of respect for a team that’s currently fifth in the East, with a good-but-not-up-to-expectations record of 30-18, which is closer to the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets than the top of the conference.
Still, there are many reasons to be high on the Celtics. The record undersells how well Boston has played, as they’re third in the league in net rating, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks and the Warriors. After a slow start, Boston has started to figure things out, and have gone 20-8 since late November.
But for the Warriors, the success of the deep, ultra-talented, well-coached Celtics starts in one place, and one place only: Kyrie Irving. Slater talked with numerous Warriors players who pointed to the star point guard as being the team’s catalyst.
“He really catapults them,” Shaun Livingston said. “You put that experience, the level of talent from a mental standpoint, he’s on another level. You categorize the superstar players based on what they do in the playoffs. So that’s why he gets so much respect.”
“[Irving’s style is] what I like as a fan of the game,” Kevin Durant said, while Klay Thompson credited Boston’s success as being due to “one of the best scorers in the league and a bunch of great players around him.”
Of course, Warriors fans are all too familiar with Irving putting his greatness on display. He not only met Golden State in three championship matchups while with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but put the Warriors on the receiving end of one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history.
That’s not something that is easily forgotten.
Steve Kerr spread his praise out a little further, touching on all the things that made him call Boston the East’s “team of the future” back in 2017, and describing why they’re always such a tough opponent for Golden State.
Steve Kerr on what he respects about the Celtics pic.twitter.com/tOndDIMjDj— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) January 26, 2019
“Well, number one, they’re really good,” Kerr said, when asked about why Boston is such a difficult out. “But number two, I think they have built their team in a way that matches up with us pretty well, in terms of like-sized wings. They’ve got all these guys like [Jayson] Tatum, and [Jaylen] Brown, and Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart, who can guard multiple positions, which is how we’re built. And when you have that type of versatility defensively, it’s a lot easier to gain your footing in a game.”
It’s clear that between the depth of Boston - Hayward and Al Horford are All-Stars, Tatum is headed in that direction, and the bench goes on and on - the coaching of Brad Stevens, and the star power of Irving, the Celtics are as respected as any team inside the Warriors locker room.
Boston has work to do to make their first NBA Finals appearance since the Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce trio lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010. But if Golden State is right, the Celtics will find a way.
Who will represent the East in the NBA Finals?
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