Ready or not, the Golden State Warriors will be at TD Garden on Saturday night and they’re playing their best ball of the season. They added DeMarcus Cousins. They are no longer bickering, and they are focused on getting the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
The Celtics have spent this season dealing with their share of drama after being tabbed as the preseason favorites to face the Warriors in the NBA Finals. They have worked through role changes, the slow return of Gordon Hayward, a myriad of injuries and some befuddling losses to put themselves in a position to make a run at the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Amazingly, the Celtics are only five games back of Milwaukee and Toronto and are second in the NBA in opponent’s field goal percentage and fourth in opponent’s scoring, meaning they have maintained their principles despite a chaotic first half.
The Warriors plan to test all those principles. The five-All-Star lineup leads the league in scoring (118.7 points per game), field goal percentage (48.9), is second in 3-point percentage (39.0) and second in scoring differential.
On any given night, three Warriors could score 40 points with relative ease. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant can literally embarrass teams with their outside shooting prowess. They are worth the price of admission.
Draymond Green, after a troubled start to the season that included a much-publicized clash with Durant, has returned to his menacing ways on defense. He leads the Warriors in assists, rebounds and steals. His scoring is down because he is taking fewer shots, but he has emerged as the playmaker in the offense.
And finally, the Warriors just added a healthy — and getting healthier — Cousins, who will play his fourth game with the Warriors on Saturday. Cousins was a former Celtics target who is in the early stages of learning to play with so much talent and cement his own role.
“Have you seen them play recently?” Celtics coach Brad Stevens retorted when asked if it was a good time to face the Warriors. “I don’t know if anybody in the league should say it’s an ideal time to play them. We’re not as good as we want to be but we don’t expect to be as good as we want to be yet. That’s part of being the very best at the end of the year and continuously growing and improving. We’ll find out more about ourselves on Saturday night.”
Since the Warriors began their run of three championships in four years beginning in 2015, the Celtics are 3-5 against them with two of those wins at Oracle Arena. In November 2017, with their revamped lineup featuring Kyrie Irving, the Celtics rallied to edge the Warriors, 92-88, in perhaps the best defensive performance in the Stevens era.
The trio of Curry, Thompson and Green were a combined 11-for-43 shooting and the Warriors scored just 41 points in the second half. The Celtics won despite shooting 32.8 percent because they attempted 38 free throws, much to the chagrin of the Warriors.
The Celtics have maintained their defensive prowess for most of the season, but this will obviously be the ultimate test. They have fared well against the league’s elite teams — 2-0 against Philadelphia, 1-1 against Milwaukee, 2-1 against Toronto and competitive losses to Houston and Denver.
But the players realize it will take a special effort to overtake the Warriors. Golden State has changed some this season. Its bench is not as effective. Players such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston have slowed down. Former Celtic Jonas Jerebko has played well but won’t be available because of the birth of his child.
So there is more reliance on the starters, but that’s good enough on most nights when those starters are all former or current All-Stars. The Celtics also have a loaded lineup and Al Horford (rest) and Irving (flu-like symptoms) are expected to be back for Saturday’s game.
It’s going to take the Celtics’ best performance of the season to win, because the Warriors are back to their clowning ways, evidenced by Thompson hitting his first 10 3-point attempts Monday against the Los Angeles Lakers and turning the second half into a pickup game. The Warriors can embarrass teams without even trying, and the Celtics promise to be prepared for the challenge.
“We know how big this game is so we’re going to get our rest tomorrow and come prepared to play,” guard Terry Rozier said. “We’re definitely trending in the right way at the right time going into this game. We’re ready.
“The coaches do a great job of getting us prepared when we’re in practice, shootaround, just the way of guarding them. They’ve got five All-Stars in their starting lineup, so it’s tough. But when you play with that effort, play with that edge, it can work out for you.”
The Celtics will need effort, execution, the home crowd and probably a couple of breaks to beat the Warriors. But if they are indeed a title-contending team, playing their best against the best shouldn’t be too high of an expectation. This is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for after a lackluster first 48 games.
“We’re not backing down from any challenges,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “We’re going to play Celtic basketball and try to take the fight to them.”