In home games over the past 2½ seasons, the mighty Warriors are 0-2 against the Celtics and 103-11 against the rest of the NBA. It would be folly to say Boston has found the antidote to defeating this historically dominant team, but it also would be a mistake to dismiss the Celtics’ success against the best.
On Saturday night, in one of the most highly anticipated games of this regular season, the leaders of their respective conferences will meet at Oracle Arena once again, as the Celtics try to win their third game in a row there.
When these teams met at TD Garden Nov. 16, the Celtics stormed back from a 17-point deficit to grab a 92-88 win. That was part of Boston’s mammoth 16-game winning streak that vaulted them to the top of the Eastern Conference, and they have not left the perch since.
“It’s a regular-season game and you want to go in there, and it’s a great test and a great opportunity to get better,” Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving said. “And what better way than going against the reigning champs? It’s always a great challenge going against them because you know you have to bring your best, and it’s always fun playing in environments like that.”
The Celtics will not quite be whole for this game, however. The team announced Friday that guard Marcus Smart will be sidelined for about two weeks with a right hand laceration he suffered on Wednesday afternoon. Smart said on Twitter he sustained the injury, which required multiple stitches, when he struck a picture frame. Smart posted an apology on Twitter on Friday.
“I’m embarrassed and disappointed in my actions. I swiped at and hit a picture frame on the wall. I feel like I let all y’all down,” he said. “I promise I will learn from this situation and come back better than ever. I love y’all and I truly appreciate all the support.”
I want to take this time to express my sincerest apologies to my teammates, coaches, and most of all the amazing Boston Celtics fans. I'm embarrassed and disappointed in my actions. I swiped at and hit a picture frame on the wall. I feel like I let all y'all down— marcus smart (@smart_MS3) January 26, 2018
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he was disappointed in Smart’s actions and added that any disciplinary actions would be kept in-house.
“Obviously, he’s a very passionate person and didn’t handle his emotions correctly,” Stevens said. “That’s something that we’ll talk about more with him and go from there.”
Celtics forward Al Horford, who missed Wednesday’s game because he was being monitored for concussion symptoms, practiced on Friday and is expected to play on Saturday.
When these teams met in November, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined to make just 8 of 32 shots, by far their worst shooting game as a duo this season. The chances of such messy performances repeating themselves are quite slim, but it is also true that the poor shooting was not just bad luck for Golden State.
The Celtics still own the top-ranked defense in the NBA, and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has constructed a roster that is overflowing with long, athletic, versatile wing defenders who are capable of switching on every screen. It is exactly what you need to at least slightly subdue Golden State.
But the Celtics can be encouraged because their offense was almost in shambles in the game, and they found a way to win anyway.
“I know both teams were tired,” Irving said. “That was like early in the season so probably our shape wasn’t at the optimal level. But you just see the way they’re playing now, it seems like they’ve gotten a lot quicker just getting up the floor on makes and misses. And they’ve just picked up their pace.”
Horford made 7 of 11 shots against Golden State, and he was the only Boston player to shoot better than 40 percent from the field. As a team, the Celtics made just 32.9 percent of their shots in that game, a mark that is still the season low by 2.8 percent. Yet they still managed to snag their biggest win of the season.
“I think that these guys are so special on both ends of the floor, but you just have to try to make it a possession-by-possession game,” Stevens said. “That’s a lot easier said than done because this is an unbelievable environment and the talent, coaching, and everything else is top notch.”
The Eastern Conference increasingly appears to be a two-team race at the top, with the Celtics and Raptors distancing themselves from the others. It is possible that the No. 2 seed could end up with a slightly easier path to the finals than the No. 1 seed, particularly if the reeling Cavaliers fall to fourth or fifth.
But the Celtics certainly will push toward securing home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs if they are able.
Saturday’s game might be most important psychologically, however. If the Celtics are able to win at Golden State for the third year in a row and also sweep the series this season, the Warriors might not seem quite as invincible.
Last season, even though Boston surged to the No. 1 seed, Cleveland’s place in the finals seemed almost predetermined. This year, the inevitability is gone, and it is quite possible that Saturday’s matchup could be a preview of the NBA Finals.
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A Cleveland.com report on Thursday citing anonymous sources said Irving last summer threatened to undergo knee surgery that would cause him to miss at least part of the regular season if the Cavaliers did not trade him.
Irving on Friday disputed that report, saying it was not true.
“It’s kind of crazy the amount of things that are still coming out, that are still trying to be relevant,” Irving said. “I guess that’s part of being in the NBA and all the media scrutiny and everything that goes with it. I’m just ready to move on.”