The pursuit of the Warriors got considerably noisier Tuesday, when the Cleveland Cavaliers granted Kyrie Irving’s wish to be traded by sending the All-Star point guard to the Boston Celtics.
Boston is slightly improved, Cleveland is roughly the same and the two teams are set to meet in the juiciest Eastern Conference Finals since James left Miami three summers ago.
As for the Warriors, they’re still holding the Larry O’Brien trophy and smoking fine cigars and waiting for rings to be presented in two months.
While not exactly yawning, they’re not sweating any more than they did last week or last month. The Warriors have good reason to remain confident in their status as the most dangerous team in the NBA.
Granted, only one team had the assets and established contender status to acquire Irving and immediately get within seeing distance of the Warriors. That team is the Celtics, who suddenly are built to challenge the champs in ways the Cavaliers no longer could.
Even with their loss to Cleveland in the 2016 Finals, the Warriors over the past three seasons fairly owned the Cavs, going 4-2 in the regular season and posting an 11-7 record against them over the past three Finals. The Warriors dominated the 2017 Finals, winning in five games.
Furthermore, the Warriors over the last six regular-season meetings have outscored Cleveland by an average of 13.5 points. Though the average margin shrinks to about 7 over 18 games in The Finals, it’s still relatively decisive.
Despite the magnified glorification of the Warriors-Cavs trilogy, the Warriors generally were superior.
Cleveland will be a factor in the East, if only because LeBron James will ensure it and Isaiah Thomas -- acquired in the Irving deal -- will provide capable assistance. But the blockbuster deal sending Irving to Boston blows a massive hole through what was left of the three-year-old rivalry between the Warriors and Cavs.
In its place are intriguing matchups between the Warriors and the Celtics, who over the past three years have played the Warriors tougher than any other team. Though the Warriors also are 4-2 against Boston over the last three regular seasons, the overall scoring difference is only 2.2 points in favor of the Warriors. Each team has a double-digit win, with the other four games decided by five or fewer points.
And that was before All-Star forward Gordon Hayward signed with the Celtics last month, before forward Marcus Morris was acquired and before Irving was brought into the parquet posse.
Hayward at small forward is a huge offensive upgrade over Crowder, who will take his solid defensive game to Cleveland. While the Warriors could sag off Crowder, Hayward will have to be guarded. Gone are the days of Boston’s offense occasionally lapsing into Thomas and four guys in spectator mode.
Irving is a better offensive player that Thomas only in that he is six inches taller. Both are among the top five players capable of breaking down defenses. Both have tremendous shooting range, though Irving is slightly more accurate. Both are 90-percent free throw shooters. Irving has a modestly better assist-to-turnover ratio. Both thrive in the clutch.
So why is Boston better with Irving than with Thomas? Defense. Irving’s poor defense is an upgrade over Thomas’ atrocious defense.
Why aren’t the Warriors more worried about a Boston team that has found ways to exploit them? It’s because the loss of Avery Bradley, a truly great backcourt defender, is going to sting the Celtics. Any defense devised by coach Brad Stevens is going to be compromised if Hayward and Irving are on the floor. That’s where Crowder and Bradley will be missed.
And that’s where the Warriors will go to eat.
This trade signals that the Celtics are serious about chasing Eastern Conference superiority and the Cavs officially are operating on a one-year plan.
The balance of power in the East shifts ever so slightly. About as slightly as the balance of power in the West when the Thunder acquired Paul George.
The Warriors, however, remain well in front of the pack. Yes, there are more and more footsteps behind them, but all of them are in the distance.