The Warriors and the Celtics, the present and the future

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 14: Kyrie Irving
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 14: Kyrie Irving /

For better or for worse, Kyrie Irving and the Golden State Warriors are indelibly, inextricably linked. If Kyrie had never hit The Shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, breaking a three-minute-long deadlock and later forcing Kevin Love to play the best defense of his life against two-time defending MVP Stephen Curry, perhaps the Warriors go on to win their second straight title. From there, Draymond Green probably doesn’t call Kevin Durant for help, and Durant probably doesn’t kick-start his own cottage meme culture full of cupcakes and fake Twitter accounts by leaving Oklahoma City.

As it is, though, Irving did hit that shot, Green did (or did not!) call Durant and two seasons later, the landscape of the NBA is so much different than we could have reasonably predicted then. On Thursday night, Irving leads the Boston Celtics, currently on a 13-game winning streak and riding a justifiable wave of confidence as the team with the best record in the NBA, against those same Warriors, the acknowledged best actual team in the NBA.

The Warriors, of course, boast an historically-great offense, one which is already outpacing last season’s juggernaut and one which would set the all-time record for offensive rating in a season if it could maintain its current level (117.1). The Warriors also lead the league in true shooting percentage (63.1 percent) and effective field goal percentage (59.7 percent), often pounding opponents into submission through a series of smart passes leading to a barrage of 3-pointers that ends the game by the third quarter. We’ve grown used to this by now.

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On the other side, the Celtics lead the league in defensive rating at 97.8 points per 100 possessions through the first 15 games of the season. They are the only team with a defensive rating below 101, in fact, a mark made all the more impressive given that it is happening without the biggest free agent signing of the summer, Gordon Hayward. Their net rating is second-best in the NBA, behind — who else? — the Warriors. Brad Stevens has the Celtics working like an exceptionally well-oiled machine on defense, leading the league in opponent effective field goal percentage (48.0 percent). Even Irving himself has noticeably ratcheted up his effort on defense — for example, his steal percentage is at a career-high (3.0 percent) and his Defensive Box Plus-Minus is positive for the first time in his career.

The secret to both teams’ success on their respective sides of the ball is in versatility, that signal post of the modern NBA. Taking up the classic FreeDarko Positional Revolution mandate and bringing it near its extremes, both the Warriors and Celtics possess several players capable of creating mismatches on offense and switching across multiple positions on defense. Players like Marcus Smart — the current worst shooter in the NBA and worst 3-point shooter ever — and Nick Young — a gunner with a tendency to be erratic and a reputation to match — remain vital via not only their defensive contributions but also through playmaking. The pass leading to the pass, as it were.

What makes the Celtics somewhat unique in their challenge to the Warriors’ dominance is that they expect to be able to slow down Golden State’s go-go offense rather than simply keep up with it and hope the Splash Family has an off night. Teams like Cleveland and Houston, the latter of which is currently hoisting 3-pointers at an historically lopsided rate, try to match Golden State’s firepower, which is as much a fool’s errand as trying to one-up Joel Embiid on the internet.

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Thursday’s matchup is one of many this season that showcases the current zeitgeist, a gaggle of impressively athletic and skillful men staring themselves in the mirror. What Steve Kerr referred to as “the team of the future in the East” is reconciling that with its unexpectedly bright present. If the Warriors are the best team in a league LeBron James begat, then Boston is an example of the equal and opposite reaction, a next-in-line squad stepping up to the counter with its number in hand.