No Part IV: NBA Finals come early with Warriors vs Celtics in November

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No Part IV: NBA Finals come early with Warriors vs Celtics in November

Programming note: Warriors-Celtics coverage starts today at 4 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area and streaming live right here

If it’s not already apparent the 2017 NBA Finals will not feature Warriors-Cavaliers IV, it should start coming into focus Thursday when the Warriors confront the team most likely to win the Eastern Conference.

That would be the Boston Celtics, who during their 13-game win streak are proving themselves ready to flip the script with which we’ve become so familiar.

With a single request to be traded out of Cleveland, Kyrie Irving changed all of that.

“It sure looks like Boston is the team of the future in the East,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday. “With their assets that they still have and their young talent and their coaching, and Kyrie is amazing. That looks like a team that is going to be at the top of the East for a long time to come.

“Whether their time is now or in the future, that’s to be determined. But they sure look like they want it to be right now.”

Irving and his All-Star act landed in Boston, joining forces with newly acquired free agent Gordon Hayward, also an All-Star. Those two moves, along with the physical realities invading LeBron James’ body, have changed the landscape and opened the door for the Celtics to reach The Finals for the first time since 2010.

And what a refreshing development that would be. Warriors-Celtics in June would have that new-car smell and also would be a closer series than one would think -- surely much, much, much more competitive than would be Warriors-Cavs IV.

Which is why Thursday night is so intriguing, even though Hayward is on the sideline, left ankle in a protective boot, with a likely season-ending injury.

Consider that no team in the league in recent seasons -- not the Cavs, the Spurs or the Grizzlies -- has played the Warriors tougher than Boston. They’ve split two games in each of the last two seasons, with the Celtics winning both games at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors routinely smash opponents.

And that was with Isaiah Thomas at the point instead of Irving, who has some Warriors skin on his wall.

Consider the work of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, particularly on defense. In eight games against Boston since Stevens arrived in 2013, the Warriors have yet to shoot 50 percent. Their high, 48.9, came last season when Al Horford and Jae Crowder were out of the lineup and it was the only time in the last four games the Warriors outshot the Celtics.

Boston, by the way, enters Thursday with the NBA’s top-rated defense, and with the four starters not named Irving wielding 7-foot wingspans. Horford has been spectacular at both ends, as have youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

Consider that Horford, coming off an uneven first season in Boston, has been a beast at both ends -- by any metric, from real-plus minus to basic plus-minus to Player Efficiency Rating to 3-point shooting, where his 48.8 percent ranks 10th among all NBA players.

With Horford sidelined last Nov. 18, the Warriors dropped a 104-88 anvil on Boston. With him back for the rematch four months later -- and Kevin Durant out injured -- the Celtics came to Oakland and won by 13, holding the Warriors to 86 points.

Consider, finally, the presence of Irving. Though slightly hindered by wearing a plastic mask to protect his face as it heals from a fracture, he is coming into full bloom. He has the best handle in the league, All-Universe hubris and is discovering the benefits of playing actual defense. He has been fabulous even while shooting only 32.6 percent from deep, well below his career average.

The Cavaliers beat the Warriors twice last season and both times Irving was the difference. He went for 40 points, seven rebounds and four assists as Cleveland won Game 4 of the 2017 Finals to avoid a sweep. Last Christmas in Cleveland, he posted 25 points, 10 assists, seven steals and six rebounds -- and drilled the game-winning shot to punctuate a Cavs comeback.

Hmm, remember which Cavalier made the game-winning, series-ending shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals?

The Warriors respect the LeBron Monster, but they’ve never feared it. Even during the ’16 Finals, they knew they had answers for it. They have more answers now that LeBron’s NBA mileage is beyond every active player other than 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.

It’s unreasonable to expect James, an incredible specimen, once again leading the NBA in minutes per game, to sustain greatness. And anything less leaves Cleveland vulnerable to Boston.

"They're really sound, and they're motivated," Kerr said of the Celtics. "It's a team that's been on the rise the last couple of years. They lost in the conference finals. They want to win a championship, and it looks like it. Even without Gordon Hayward and that awful injury, Boston is just crushing people. So, it's going to be really fun to go against them on Thursday. We know how tough it's going to be."

How anticlimactic would it be to have LeBron and the Cavs show up next June, gray at the temples and tender about the knees, trying to keep up with the Warriors?

So enjoy Warriors-Celtics. It’s the marquee game of the month, and quite probably your NBA Finals preview.

Two important factors are fueling Warriors' third-quarter blitzes during streak

Two important factors are fueling Warriors' third-quarter blitzes during streak

OAKLAND -- Steve Kerr was stumped, at least momentarily, a clueless witness to the fury that drives his team’s most devastating moments.

The Warriors of late have, more often than not, treated the first two quarters of games as full-dress rehearsals, ad-libbing and experimenting and fine-tuning in advance of the paid perfomance.

And then comes the third quarter, the money quarter, when they clear their throats and inhale deeply and start blowing opponents off the floor.

Surely the coach knows and can break it down.

“No,” Kerr said Monday night, after the Warriors rode yet another third-quarter blitz to massive lead before holding on for a 110-100 win over the Magic.

“I don’t.”

Yet it’s so consistent to be almost predictable. The Warriors are on a seven-game win streak during which they’ve made a habit of using the third quarter to turn games that are close at halftime into runaways.

Despite Kerr’s feigned ignorance, there are two factors to these third-quarter runs. They crank up the defense to levels most teams cannot bear and they sharpen up their passing. They end up creating more turnovers and turning them into points.

“In the second half, if you put a contest on some of those shots they were hitting in the first half, they’re not going to fall,” Kevin Durant said. “When we get rebounds and run, that makes us dangerous. And we score so quickly, a two-point lead can end up 10 points in a matter of a couple possessions.”

The Warriors strolled, sometimes sloppily, through a first half that ended in a 56-56 tie before crushing the spirit out of the Magic in the third quarter.

Four minutes into the second half, the Warriors had a 68-61 lead. Barely A two minutes later, they were up 78-63 and you could see thoughts of collapsing into the fetal position floating above the minds of the Magic players.

The Magic were done, finished, buried under an avalanche of buckets, just like so many before them.

“They’re a really good third-quarter team,” Orlando’s Aaron Gordon said. “We were down a little bit and there was a lack of energy on my part. It’s unacceptable.”

The Warriors outscored Orlando 32-19 in the third, which is almost perfectly in line the numbers they’re posting during this win streak, outscoring opponents by 12.6 points in the third quarter. They lead the NBA in third-quarter scoring, averaging 32.6 points.

Moreover, the Warriors have committed only 22 turnovers over the last seven third quarters while forcing 42.

“The only thing I can see,” Kerr finally concluded, “is that we start taking care of the ball. We just seem to be more careful with the ball.”

Kerr’s goal is to steal some of the energy from those third-quarter blitzes and spread them across the game.

He has been saying that for years now, though, as this season is not the first in which the Warriors do some of their best work in the third quarter.

“As the season goes on,” Klay Thompson said, “I promise you we will get better about it.”

If they can do it this consistently, they may not have to.

With Curry out vs Magic, Warriors have 'incredible luxury' in this situation

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With Curry out vs Magic, Warriors have 'incredible luxury' in this situation

OAKLAND -- Expected all along, the Warriors have officially ruled out Stephen Curry for Monday night’s game against the Orlando Magic at Oracle Arena.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the decision to sit Curry, who will be replaced at point guard by Shaun Livingston.

Curry sustained a contusion to his right thigh Saturday night in the first quarter of a 135-114 win over the 76ers. He walked with a pronounced limp afterward and did not participate in the team’s shootaround Monday morning.

The Warriors are taking the same approach to Curry as they did Nov. 6, when Kevin Durant incurred the same injury. Durant missed the next game, last Wednesday against the Timberwolves, and returned to practice on Friday and played Saturday against Philadelphia.

“It’s very similar to KD’s,” Kerr said. “If it were a playoff game, he’d play. But it’s pretty sore. It’s the same situation, where we’ve got two days to go before our next game so this gives us a chance to really get it healthy and right.”

In three-plus regular seasons (243 games) with the Warriors, Livingston has made eight starts. He started seven games in the 2016 playoffs, as Curry was out with two different injuries.

Livingston is averaging 4.5 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists over 16.5 minutes this season.

“It’s an incredible luxury to have Shaun Livingston coming off the bench,” Kerr said.

“He’s there whenever we need him. He doesn’t seem to mind if we don’t call his number and when we do, he’s ready.”