Celtics

Celtics

OAKLAND, Calif. – When it comes to Kyrie Irving and the Golden State Warriors, thoughts immediately turn to the contested jumper he hit in the closing seconds of Cleveland’s historic NBA Finals Game 7 win over the Warriors in 2016.

It was a big-time shot for a player who has been elite for years despite being just 25.

And yet, the Warriors have been one of the few teams that have made life extremely difficult for Irving which has often led to some of his worst shooting games the past couple of years.

Boston gets a lot of props for its 92-88 win over Golden State in November, but folks forget that Irving had just 16 points and did so on 4-for-16 shooting.

Go back to last season when he was with the Cavaliers and you’ll see his regular season numbers in the two meetings against Golden State – 21.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists while shooting 37 percent from the field and 30 percent on 3’s – were among his worst statistically against any team all season.

Which is why the Celtics will need Irving to play better – much better – than he has in the past few meetings against Golden State if the Celtics are to have a serious shot at sweeping the regular-season series for the first time since 2012.

And Irving is eager to embrace the challenge.

“Us going out on the floor, it’s the best thing playing the game you love against other great players,” Irving said. “You have to embrace that. This is what I signed up for, ever since I was a kid. Not just going against the Warriors but playing in different arenas and playing against high-level teams on a consistent basis. It demands you to be excellent in order to come out with wins.”

 
And while we have often defined Irving’s greatness by his scoring, he has proven to be a better defender than we saw in Cleveland. He was particularly good against the Warriors, evident by him having a defensive rating for that game of 96.7.

Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s much-anticipated rematch between the top teams in their respective conferences: 

FREE THROWS
We’ve spent a few weeks discussing how the Celtics consistently fail to get to the free-throw line. And then there was the 113-102 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, a game in which Boston was 21-for-22 from the line. It ended a franchise-record streak of 30 games in which Boston failed to make at least 20 free throws. Free throws were a major factor in the upset of the Warriors on Nov. 16 when they went 33-for-28 from the line.

JAYSON TATUM
The first time these two teams played, it was one of the few games where Jayson Tatum seemed a bit star struck in the game’s early moments when having to defend Kevin Durant. But as the game wore on, he became more comfortable. They will need that, along with a more aggressive Tatum, if they are to knock off the defending champs in Oracle Arena again.

AL HORFORD
Golden State does a lot of switching defensively because like the Celtics, they too rely on playing position-less basketball. And the play of Horford is key along those lines for Boston. He certainly gave Golden State major problems when the two met earlier this season, tallying a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds on 7-for-11 shooting. Warriors coach Steve Kerr is impressed by Horford’s versatility. “Horford can extend out to the 3-point line,” Kerr said. “He’s an excellent passer and screener.”

 

BRICK CITY
There’s a sense that Boston’s win over the Warriors in November had a lightning-in-a-bottle feel to it. Their old Big Three – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green – are no strangers to one or two of them having an off game. But all three? The Curry-Thompson-Green trilogy combined to shoot just 25.6 percent (11-for-43) in the Nov. 16 matchup. The chances of all three struggling like that tonight, at home? Not high.

LARKIN THE DEFENDER
The Celtics added Shane Larkin in large part because of his ability to change up the game’s pace along with being a good pick-and-roll player. But the Celtics have been pleasantly surprised with his defense. In the victory over Clippers, Larkin’s defense on Lou Williams was among the many factors that came into play. With Marcus Smart (right-hand laceration) out for a couple weeks, look for Larkin’s role to continue expanding. His defense will be particularly important tonight against Golden State and their bevy of perimeter scorers.  

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