Nobody outside of Kevin Durant's camp will ever truly know what happened in the Hamptons over that fourth of July weekend. All we know is that Tom Brady showed up, Pat Riley used his jedi mind tricks and Durant decided to screw over the entire NBA by picking the Golden State Warriors.
Yep, in case you thought you were dreaming, the 73 win Golden State Warriors picked up Kevin freaking Durant, one of the best five players in the association. They have created a superteam to end all superteams, by somehow improving the greatest regular season team of all-time, by signing a former league MVP away from one of their title rivals that fits seamlessly on both sides of the ball. The rest of the NBA is doomed.
Actually, I should say the rest of the NBA apart from the Boston Celtics. I don't care if I sound like a biased Celtics fan, because this Celtics team is the one squad in the league that has the pieces to take care of the Dubs. Cases can be made for the Cavs and Spurs, but neither have Boston's mix of defensive tenacity, wing depth and speed that will be able to go toe-to-toe with Golden State's assortment of death lineups.
Last season, the Celtics showed that they could handle the Warriors even without their recent offseason improvements. In their pair of contests against the Warriors, the Celtics played as well as any team did against the Dubs. In game one, the C's came ridiculously close to ending Golden State's perfect start to the season, taking the game to double overtime before Steph Curry took over to close the game out after Avery Bradley fouled out. In their second meeting the two teams were engaged in another fierce battle, but this time Brad Stevens' team prevailed by three points, ending the Warriors' record breaking home winning streak of 54 games, with the Celtics somehow finding a way to combat a 21 point Curry outburst in the third quarter.
Golden State were near unbeatable during the 2015-16 regular season, yet Brad Stevens found a working formula that almost beat them both times they matched up. It's pretty safe to say that the Celtics were a great matchup last season for the Dubs. In those two games, the Celtics were successful mainly because of their stout defense.
By the end of the season, most teams were switching everything defensively against the Warriors, a strategy that was first employed by Gregg Popovich's Spurs. It is a tactic that is risky, as it provides mismatches for the Warriors to exploit, but it limits space for Golden State's shooters, something that is key to stopping the likes of Curry and Klay Thompson from getting the sliver of room they need to launch a triple. That defensive game plan was proven to be so effective that both Oklahoma City and Cleveland used in during the playoffs, with both able to take the Warriors to a seventh game.
However, the Celtics didn't do this in their meetings. Fearing that the likes of 5'9'' Isaiah Thomas and the larger than life Jared Sullinger would be absolutely destroyed on switches, the Celtics decided against it. Instead, they used their incredible individual defensive stalwarts to lockdown the Warriors' stars, hoping that Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder could all defend their perimeter assignments one-on-one, without needing any switches.
This strategy worked in both encounters. Avery Bradley rarely allowed Curry any breathing room, staying chest-to-chest with him for the entire length of the court. Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder did this well too (although Smart was injured for the first game, while Crowder was out for the second) against whoever they were marking, Amir Johnson had the foot speed necessary to be effective against Draymond and they hid their defensive liabilities wherever they could (mainly on Iguodala, Barnes and Bogut).
The Warriors tried to attack their non-switching strategy by going with a heavy diet of high pick and roll offensively. Up until the C's played them, no team had found a way other than switching to defend the Warriors' pick and rolls with Curry effectively. Brad Stevens got his team to 'blitz' Curry up top by sending the screener's man to double him. The problem with this plan is that Curry can usually just slip an easy pass to the roll man who now has a 4-on-3 to attack, which is why the Warriors invited this pick and roll defense last season. But this wasn't a problem when the Celtics played them because of the perfect help defense and excellent rotations on display in both of their meetings. All five players on the court were always on a string, which stifled the Warriors in these 4-on-3 situations. Just skip ahead to around the 4:25 mark on the BBALLBREAKDOWN video below to see an example of what I'm talking about.
On offense, the Celtics found just enough juice both times to challenge Golden State. The C's attacked the Warriors' lack of size inside, they made Curry work on defense and had hot patches in both games that swung momentum. But the real reason why the Brad Stevens' Celtics were successful against the Warriors was because of their defensive prowess.
With their key offseason additions of Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, their ability to get stops against the Warriors is sure to improve, even with the signing of Kevin Durant.
By replacing Sullinger with Horford, the C's have become a lot more switchable. Instead of having a guy that struggles to get up and down the court, they now have someone who is comfortable switching on to guards and someone that can do it better than just about every big in the entire league. If the Celtics were to surround the mobile Horford with quality perimeter defenders like Crowder, Smart, Bradley and Jaylen Brown, all of whom can guard multiple positions on the perimeter extremely well (Avery is only 6'1'', but he is feisty and long enough with his 6'7'' wingspan to guard larger dudes), the Celtics could have the perfect group of players to carry out a high pressure defensive switching system that could stifle the Warriors. With a host of other quick, versatile players on the team like Amir Johnson, Terry Rozier and Jonas Jerebko (who showed he can switch on to point guards in the playoffs last season), the Celtics could go deep into their rotation without missing a beat.
The Celts would struggle with this strategy when Isaiah is in the ball game, as the Dubs would be able to post him up on any switch, but there are ways of hiding a guy like this. Tony Parker and Kyrie Irving have been on the court during long stretches of both their respective teams' efforts to switch against the Dubs. All it took on their part not to get demolished by a larger, more imposing offensive player was to pick their switches carefully, making sure that they didn't get stuck with someone that could exploit their lack of size. If this did happen, then Parker and Irving would switch off as soon as they could.
The great thing about this Celtics defense against the Warriors is that they could use this switching tactic that I have explained -- which was highly successful during the playoffs for the Thunder and Cavs -- with their new acquisitions, or alternatively, they could revert to their previous system that I detailed earlier in the article that worked like a charm last season. Either way works perfectly.
On offense the Horford signing has given the Celtics a new dimension on offense too. When the Dubs go to their death lineup (that now includes a guy that made 104 more threes than Harrison Barnes last season), they always love to switch everything, much like teams do against them. With their sheer length and athleticism, they're able to remain a stout defensive group even with their lack of height. But if the Warriors begin to switch against the Celtics, Al Horford can punish any smaller defender that switches on to him down in the low post. This is Horford's true value shining through here, having a big that can protect the rim, defend guards out on the perimeter, while still being able to dominate down in the post is invaluable.
That extra element to their offense is added along with an improved arsenal of shooters. Al Horford brings another stretch big to the party, Jonas Jerebko will get more minutes after his performance in the playoffs, Kelly Olynyk is deadly from deep, Gerald Green has been added who is another threat from downtown, Marcus Smart has worked tirelessly on his jumper all offseason long (as shown in their green vs white scrimmage) and Isaiah, Bradley and Crowder are all reliable options too.
Add all of this improvement up on both sides of the ball and you have a team that is seemingly custom-built to defeat the Warriors. And while I would still probably pick Golden State to beat my beloved Celtics on any given night, the gap between these two franchises is far smaller than one would first assume.
If Golden State think that they have already won the title, they are sadly mistaken.
Like what you see here? Make sure to hit that subscribe button so you never miss a post!