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.