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Boston Celtics vs. Golden State Warriors: Kyrie Irving, Celtics still the team Golden State expects to see in Finals

Ever since this summer, when it became clear the Boston Celtics would be back to full strength at the start of the season, their first game against the Golden State Warriors took on a little extra intrigue.

After all, there were plenty of reasons to believe the Celtics could have fared better against the Warriors last season in the NBA Finals even after melting down in Game 7 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs sported the second-worst defense in the league last year, while Boston finished the regular season with the second-best. The Celtics’ versatile group of athletic young stars played fearlessly (again, until the second half of Game 7) and certainly wouldn’t have been afraid of the challenge presented by the Warriors. Boston probably wouldn’t have gotten more than a game or two, but the Warriors would have had to earn their keep.

With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back, the preseason Celtics looked like a formidable foe to the two-time defending champions, even with Golden State’s offseason addition of DeMarcus Cousins.

Then the first few weeks of the season happened, followed by an eight-game winning streak for the Celtics, followed by more struggles on the road. For lengthy stretches, Boston has not looked like a contender (or even, for brief stretches, like a serviceable basketball team).

But both the Celtics and the Warriors appear to have hit their stride a bit in the last few weeks, lending Saturday’s contest some added importance.

With that in mind, here are a few observations to prepare.

1. The Warriors still believe the Celtics are their toughest challenger in the Eastern Conference, according to the Athletic’s Anthony Slater. The reasons are multi-faceted (defensive versatility, a competitive mindset, etc etc.), but the biggest one is Kyrie Irving.

“It’s just (Kyrie’s basketball) style that’s more my taste,” Durant told Slater. “What I like as a fan of the game.”

The Warriors still respect Kyrie Irving to an enormous degree. He’s one of the few guards who can cook Klay Thompson (one of the league’s best guard defenders), and he can get his shot whenever he wants. That counts for a lot in a tense playoff series when the offense breaks down.

2. The Steph Curry mismatch matters. Clearly, the Warriors will get more from having Curry than they lose (perhaps no other player in the NBA is more impactful than Curry), but the Celtics actually have the personnel to make Golden State pay. Thompson will almost certainly match up with Irving. Smart is making 3-pointers this season, which complicates the idea of hiding Curry on him — Curry is a competent defender, but not a great one, and he won’t be able to rove and help if Smart is making triples. The Celtics also can take advantage of Curry with Brown, who often plays the two-guard role at 6-foot-7, which is a difficult matchup.

3. The Celtics over the last five games have an offensive rating of 116.2 and a defensive rating of 106.2 — a net rating of 10.0. The Warriors over the last five games: An offensive rating of 124.4 and a defensive rating of 108.7 — a net rating of 15.7.

In other words, this could be a heavyweight showdown between two contenders who are both rolling at the right time.

4. One other somewhat interesting stat (on both sides).

The Warriors in the last five minutes of a close game (within five points) have an offensive rating of 113.9 and an absurd defensive rating of 82.8. That’s a staggering net rating of 31.1 in 16 games that meet that qualification. The Warriors have a net rating of 16.6 overall in the clutch, fourth in the NBA.

The Celtics, meanwhile, have a net rating of 23.5 in those same qualifications, mostly built off their offense — the rating skyrockets to 126.2. The Celtics’ net rating overall in the clutch is 25.2 — second in the NBA.

Translated from numbers into English: Both teams are elite when a tight game comes down the stretch. If Saturday’s matchup is close, expect the quality of the game to ratchet up.

5. Terry Rozier on DeMarcus Cousins: “He’s a big boy down there. I’m pretty sure Al is ready for the challenge, but he got to guard Al too. Al stretches the floor so it’s going to be a great matchup.”

Horford is Boston’s default answer to any team’s opposing big man, and he’s a good answer. Not only is Horford a lot tougher than he gets credit for, he’s an elite positional defender and a stretch big who has to be guarded to the 3-point line. If Cousins does get to the 3-point line to defend Horford, he will have to deal with the fact that Horford is happy to put the ball on the ground and try to get to the hoop.

Defending bigs like Horford is really hard, which is quietly one of the reasons dealing with the Celtics is so difficult.

6. Knocking on wood here, but games like Saturday — in which everybody is expected to be healthy for a highly anticipated matchup — aren’t always common during the NBA season. A lot will happen between Saturday night and June (heck, a lot will happen between Saturday night and March 5, when these two teams play in Oakland), but there will be real takeaways from Saturday’s game. That makes the matchup particularly intriguing.

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