One of the NBA's most intriguing questions of the last decade is about to be answered: What if the Warriors had to beat the Celtics in the Finals?
No team has given Golden State more trouble than Boston since Steph Curry and Co. won their first championship in 2015. No matter the roster, no matter the talent disparity, the C's battle the Warriors like no one else.
Now they're going to meet in June, and just in the nick of time. The Celtics, behind young guns Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are on the rise. The Warriors, built around the 30-something troika of Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, could be making their last stand.
That they're intersecting at this moment is a basketball purist's dream -- the proud champions built around a breathtakingly creative offense vs. the young upstarts who play defense as relentlessly as a tsunami. We haven't had a Finals pairing this intriguing since the Warriors met LeBron James and the Cavs for the first time seven years ago.
We've wanted this matchup forever. Since the Warriors became the Warriors in 2015, they're 7-9 (.438) against the Celtics and 499-219 (.807) against everyone else. If you start a year later with Isaiah Thomas's first full season in Boston, when the Celtics became legitimate playoff contenders, the Dubs are just 5-9.
The Celtics boast a first-team All-NBA talent in Tatum today, but for the most part they may as well have been running guys in from the Attleboro Y. When they took the 23-0 Warriors to double overtime in December of 2015, their starting five included Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson. When they beat them four months later to deny Golden State the first perfect home record in NBA history, they got 21 points from Evan Turner and 19 effective minutes from Jonas Jerebko.
Even at the absolute height of their powers, the Warriors rarely waltzed to victories. Other than a 16-point win in 2016, they haven't beaten the C's by more than five points since 2015. Their games invariably come down to the final moments, even when players like David Lee or James Young are seeing crunch-time minutes in green.
Now we're talking Tatum, and the All-Star Brown, and Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, and veteran stabilizer Al Horford, and shot-blocking menace Robert Williams, and tough-as-nails guard Derrick White, and Draymond-in-waiting nuisance Grant Williams.
But on the other side, the Warriors are more battle-tested than any team since the Jordan Bulls. Curry continues to dazzle at age 34. Thompson has returned from devastating knee and Achilles injuries to average over 20 a night. The mercurial Green just put up 7-7-7 numbers, which perfectly capture his selfless all-around value.
This is a fantastic matchup because the clubs' respective strengths lock together like opposing magnetic poles. The Warriors shoot the 3 better than any team ever, but they'll also kill you backdoor. The Celtics defend the perimeter like attack dogs and can switch every cut.
Golden State will need to be patient to get the looks it wants. The Celtics must remain disciplined to guard for the entire clock as Curry and Thompson dart around screens. This series will take a mental toll unlike anything either team has encountered this postseason, and that's including the Brooklyn-Milwaukee-Miami gauntlet the Celtics ran to get here.
It's nothing new, because memorable games abound even though the teams only meet twice a year. The Celtics trailed by 17 points in the Garden in 2017 before scoring 19 straight in a furious comeback victory. They nearly won again on the road a few months later in what looked like the gravest threat to the defending champions' reign.
The decimated Celtics instead lost Game 7 of the conference finals to LeBron and the Cavs, who were summarily swept. The Celtics believe they would've shocked Golden State, even without injured veterans Irving and Gordon Hayward.
"We definitely would've beat Golden State that year," Smart told J.J. Redick's podcast this winter. While that's debatable, there's little question they would've given the Warriors a better series.
It's just what they do. The clubs split this year, with Golden State taking a close one in Boston in December, and the visitors returning the favor in March by not only romping to a 22-point win as part of their second-half demolition tour, but knocking Curry out for the rest of the season when he suffered a foot injury while being beaten to a loose ball by Smart.
Curry's healthy now and the Warriors breezed to the Finals while only losing four games vs. the Nuggets, Grizzlies, and Mavericks. The Celtics present a different test altogether, however, as a relentlessly physical team with size that's riding a burgeoning superstar and a feeling of destiny.
The Warriors have been here before, but they've never faced a team like the Celtics. The Celtics believe this is their year, but there's nothing the Warriors haven't seen.
It's a Finals matchup nearly 10 years in the making, and if the past is any indication, the NBA is about to close out 2022 with one hell of a show.