Five lessons Warriors learned in Boston

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USATSI

Five lessons Warriors learned in Boston

Here are five things were learned about the Warriors during a 92-88 loss Thursday night in Boston.

1) CAN’T ALLOW THE CELTICS TO BREATHE

This was going to be the toughest game of the season, and they knew why. It was the day after a cross-country flight, in a place known for hostility toward visitors and, above all, against a Celtics team coached by Brad Stevens.

Every time the Warriors have played the Celtics since Stevens arrived in 2013, the Warriors have had the superior roster. Yet the Celtics generally are able to make them and keep them sweating for most of the game’s duration.

The Celtics know that. Down 17 with 5:25 left in the second quarter, they got within five at the half. Down 17 with 4:59 left in the third quarter, they went on a 19-0 run to take a lead inside the final minute of the quarter.

The Bucks and the Heat disrupt can Warriors’ offense enough to hang around. The Spurs and Grizzlies can at times make things tough for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Only the Celtics can consistently do both.

2) WARRIORS DIDN’T ADAPT TO THE WHISTLES

The officials -- chief James Capers, Pat Fraher and Tyler Ford -- were at best a middling crew by NBA standards. Capers is an ordinary lead, Fraher a mediocre No. 2 and Ford one of the weakest officials in the league.

The Celtics are a physically aggressive team. That’s particularly true of Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown, each of whom plays as if gunpowder is running through his bloodstreams. On a normal night, they practically dare referees to call fouls. On this night, with this crew, they were in heaven.

The Warriors were, by contrast, in purgatory. Never adjusting and rarely matching Boston’s physical intensity, the Warriors were outrebounded 52-47 and, moreover, lost the second-chance points battle 18-5.

The Celtics earned their decisive 38-19 margin in free throw attempts.

3) CAN’T CRUISE AGAINST CONTENDERS

The Warriors, supremely confident, will go through stretches of a game where they simply lose interest or focus. There is a growing belief within the league that they will allow comebacks.

That belief is based in fact, at least as it pertains to the league’s better teams. The Warriors led the Pistons by 14 and lost by eight, led the Grizzlies by five and lost by 10, led the Rockets by 17 and lost by one.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone reminded his players of that on Nov 4 in Denver. They wiped out an early 13-point deficit to go up by 2. It didn’t last, but . . .

Now this. The Warriors can look say they should have won all four of their losses. Quality opponents can look back and believe the Warriors are lack killer instinct.

They had it during 2017 playoffs. Maybe they’re waiting for the REAL season.

4) STEVE KERR SOMETIMES HAS TOO MUCH FAITH

The coach believes in his team, as well he should, for it has rewarded him with three consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals and two championships.

That said, there was no emphatic response to the Warriors giving back 12 points of a 17-point lead in the first half and all of a 17-point lead in the third quarter.

Kerr called a timeout at the 3:17 mark of the second quarter, after Boston whittled a 44-27 Warriors lead down to 45-34. There was no timeout over the remainder of the half, which ended with the Warriors leading 47-42.

Another timeout was called with 3:46 left in the third quarter, after the Celtics shrunk the 17-point lead to 10, 66-56. Out of the timeout, Boston went on a 12-0 run, taking a 68-66 lead with 53.8 seconds remaining in the quarter.

The game was arrhythmic. The officials seemed overmatched. Kerr, believing in his players and anticipating a close game down the stretch, wanted to save his timeouts. He used them all, but one timeout during a 19-0 run seems sparse.

5) STRANGE FEAR OF THE CUP

Boston plays tremendous team defense, but the Warriors made it easy on the Celtics, particularly down the stretch by forgetting they have no rim protector.

The Warriors were 7-of-21 from the field in the fourth quarter. Within that they were 3-of-12 from deep. They fired four triples for every three shots in the paint. Six of the eight shots they took over the final 2:21 were from deep.

We know the Warriors love the 3-ball and that it has been very good for them. But in a close game featuring mediocre officials, they settled for long jumpers rather than going right at one of Boston’s few defensive weaknesses. The Celtics rely on team defense because they rank 24th in blocks.

The Warriors, to be sure, shied away. They feared when there was nothing to fear.

Gameday: Classic duel of Curry vs Kyrie as Warriors take on Celtics

Gameday: Classic duel of Curry vs Kyrie as Warriors take on Celtics

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

They’re the hottest teams in the NBA and they own the best records in their respective conferences, and that explains why TD Garden will be white-hot with intensity when the Warriors and Celtics meet on Thursday.

Coverage on NBC Sports Bay Area begins at 4 p.m., with tipoff scheduled for 5:05.

The Warriors (11-3) have won seven in a row as they begin a four-game road trip on the East Coast. A bruised thigh kept Stephen Curry out of the game against Orlando on Monday night, but practiced Wednesday and is expected to rejoin the lineup.

Though the Celtics (13-2) underwent a roster makeover in the offseason and opened the season by losing their first two games, they have not lost since and will bring a 13-game win streak into the game.

BETTING LINE

Warriors by 7.5

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Stephen Curry vs. Kyrie Irving: Arguably the two best floor leaders in the NBA today, with Curry leading the championship race 2-1 and the MVP race 2-0. Curry has the benefit of superior scorers, notably Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, to ride with. With Hayward out, Irving absolutely has to get buckets. This is a classic duel, even when they don’t always guard each other, and they’ll spend a lot of time on each other in this game. Beware of the close game, for Irving is a fantastic closer.

INJURY REPORT

Warriors: G Stephen Curry (R thigh bruise) will play after missing one game. C Damian Jones is on assignment with the G-League Santa Cruz Warriors.

Celtics: F Gordon Hayward (L ankle fracture) is listed as out.

GAME OFFICIALS

James Capers (crew chief), Tyler Ford and Pat Fraher.

SERIES HISTORY

The teams have split two games in each of the past two seasons, with each winning on the other’s court. The Warriors have won seven of the last 10 meetings overall, including the last four in Boston. Their last loss at TD Garden was on March 1, 2013.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

IMMOVABLE VS. IRRESISTIBLE: The Warriors lead the league in scoring, 119 points per game, and offensive rating at 116.1. The Celtics allow a league-low 94.5ppg and own a league-best 95.8 defensive rating. Boston’s length (four of the top six players have 7-foot wingspans) and switching ability stifles opposing offenses, which is how it has the league’s best record despite its 26th-best field-goal percentage. Can the Warriors create holes? Don’t be surprised if there’s more pick-and-roll than usual.

THE VERSATILE FOURS: Draymond Green of the Warriors and Al Horford of the Celtics are power forwards who sometimes masquerade as centers. They’re superb defenders, capable of guarding multiple positions. They can score inside and out; Horford is shooting 48.8 percent from deep, Green 38.3. Green will be the primary defender on Horford, but expect Horford to split time defending Green and Durant.

THE BENCH WAR: Warriors reserves are shooting a league-best 54.2 percent, while Boston is firing at a league-worst 35.9 percent. Worse, Boston’s bench is shooting 29.2 percent beyond the arc to 35.7 for the Warriors. Unless the Celtics work some magic with rotations, their second unit is in danger of being scorched by the deeper Warriors.

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.