OAKLAND, Calif. — For any team other than the Golden State Warriors, it might be presumptuous to ponder potential NBA Finals opponents. But the Warriors have earned a right to ponder such things given their dominance in recent seasons.
So with the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics in town for a Saturday night showdown, Warriors coach Steve Kerr was asked if there was anything his team could learn from seeing a potential playoff foe. The obvious insinuation: Might this be a potential Finals preview?
Kerr didn’t shy away from it.
“These are always interesting games when you know you have a chance to be in the Finals and you know kind of who the potential opponents are,” Kerr said. “You always play closer attention for that reason.”
Keeping with the trend of the past three seasons, the Celtics, who had emerged with wins their past two trips to Oracle Arena, gave the Warriors all they could handle. But in a game that featured a scoring duel between All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving, it was the Warriors who escaped with a 109-105 triumph.
Curry scored a season-high 49 points, including 33 in the second half to fend off a Boston team that had rallied ahead late in the fourth with help from Irving’s team-high 37 points.
And the whispers about a possible Finals preview only grew louder after the game. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Celtics and Warriors a 20 percent chance of meeting in the Finals, currently the second most likely matchup behind only a Warriors-Raptors pairing.
“Man, that’s an interesting question,” Irving said when asked about a Finals preview. “I don’t even know if I can answer that. A lot can change throughout the season and you never know. So I think I’ll probably have a better answer for you down the line.”
This was the 24th meeting between Irving and Curry, including the postseason, and the two point guards combined to score 86 points, the most they have put up in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
There was an obvious energy inside Oracle Arena. And many fans in the loge spent the final four minutes of play standing as the conference leaders traded punches.
After Boston blew a chance to pull back ahead when Al Horford missed a bunny and Marcus Morris missed a tip-in, it was Curry who broke the final tie of the night with a pull-up 3-pointer in transition with 1:44 to go. Curry added a driving layup a short time after and ultimately scored 13 of Golden State’s final 14 points in that 104-second span.
The Celtics pulled within one point in the closing seconds but never got a real chance to tie or force overtime.
Irving needed just 18 shots for his 37 points, connecting on 13 of his attempts.
Curry struggled mightily during Golden State’s trip to Boston in November, and his off night helped the Celtics rally from as much as 17 down to stun the Warriors in that game.
But on Saturday, Boston was missing one of its key Curry antagonists in Marcus Smart, who is out for two weeks after lacerating his hand while punching a picture frame in Los Angeles this week.
“It was a great basketball game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Golden State’s victory. “It just felt like a playoff game. High-level stuff, great defense, both teams playing incredibly hard and smart, not a lot of turnovers. Some tremendous individual performances. The guard play tonight was just amazing back-and-forth.”
While Kevin Durant downplayed the playoff-like observation, Curry embraced it.
“It was playoff intensity, back and forth. Besides that first, probably, eight, 10 minutes, nobody could really get any separation, so I’d say a defensive battle pretty much the whole game and guys making plays all over the court. So, it was a fun game, it was intense, it was hard fought through, all 48 minutes. So that is kind of what you expect in the playoffs, for sure.”
Celtics second-year guard Jaylen Brown made sure not to make any grand proclamations about a Finals preview.
“Hey, I just focus on what’s in front of me, and I think our team focuses on what’s in front of us,” said Brown. “That’s a long ways from now. We’ve got a lot better to get, and we’ll see when we get there.”
The Celtics, who have dropped five of their past six games, wrap up a four-game road trip on Monday night in Denver. The Warriors, winners of seven of their past eight, visit Utah on Tuesday night.