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Celtics still look like the Warriors’ biggest threat

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Another regular season classic between the teams makes us dream of June.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON -- You go to the big game, you want to see the show. You want to see Steph Curry darting around screens and firing up threes while Kyrie Irving dances with his dribble through waves of defenders. You want to see Kevin Durant attack the basket relentlessly and Al Horford play cat and mouse with DeMarcus Cousins on the perimeter.

More than anything, you wanted to see a great game.

No problem there. The Warriors and Celtics (almost) always play great games. There was the double-overtime classic back in 2015 that served as the final victory in Golden State’s 24-game winning streak to open their 73-win season. The rematch in Oakland several months later was just as good, with the C’s stealing a 4-point victory in Oracle that snapped the Warriors’ record 54-game home winning streak.

Just last season, the Celtics stretched their winning streak to 14 games with a grimy four-point win that further validated their early-season success. “I hear the weather is great here in June,” Curry said after that one. He was joking, mostly. Two months later in Oakland, Curry poured in 49 points -- including 13 in the game’s final 102 seconds -- to outduel Irving’s 37-point night.

What we saw on Saturday night at the Garden was yet another regular season classic to add to the litany. Sure, it didn’t end in the most graceful of fashion. After 47 minutes of beautifully orchestrated back-and-forth basketball, the final minute was a cacophony of turnovers and blown opportunities.

In the final seconds, Draymond Green missed two free throws with a chance to put the game away at the free throw line. Being Draymond, he grabbed his own rebound and quickly shoveled the ball to Curry who was absolutely not going to miss two free throws with the game on the line.

It was an unsatisfying conclusion to a game that demanded some sort of last-shot denouement. But after 21 lead changes and 14 ties, the Warriors’ 115-111 victory gave us a taste of what may await in June.

Perhaps, then, this was a Finals preview?

“I’m not a fortune teller,” Klay Thompson said.

Almost like a playoff atmosphere?

“No,” Irving said. “It was a regular season game.”

It was a good game, though, right? Give us that, guys.

“We bring the best out of each other,” Curry said.

That’ll have to do for now.

At the very least, the C’s certainly have the Warriors’ attention. It helps that with Irving, they have one of the few players in the league who has ever taken the measure of Golden State and come out on top. That alone engenders respect among the Warrior players.

It also helps that they have the kind of team that can actually match up with the Warriors, featuring long, switchy wings who can cover and react. Add in a big man in Horford who can stretch the floor and play the kind of help and recover defense that’s a necessity against Golden State, and the coaches have taken note.

“They’re great defensively and they’ve got dynamic offensive players, they’re already one of the best,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “It will be interesting to see this year with LeBron (James) out of the East who comes out of the East and we have a lot of work to do to also get out of the West; a lot of great teams this year. I think the league is better this year than it’s been in a long time. A lot of great teams, but Boston is clearly a great two-way team and that is what it takes in the playoffs.”

Of course, the Celtics would have to get there first. They’re currently fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, which is hardly a prime position to make it through the postseason unscathed. The Raptors are a tough match-up for them and on paper the Bucks are better than anyone. The C’s have endured uncomfortable stretches where no one seems to be on the same page and they’ve had more than their share of unfathomable losses.

And yet, there has been a feeling throughout the league that eventually the Celtics will coalesce into a whole that’s greater than the sum of their considerable parts. No one seems to trust Toronto or Milwaukee or Philly.

While the Celtics haven’t earned that level of confidence yet, when it finally happens, they’ll eventually play the kind of consistent basketball that separates them from the pack. That’s the theory, anyway.

We saw that in spurts on Saturday. Kyrie was dazzling, as always. Horford turned in a vintage Playoff Horford performance with 22 points and 13 rebounds. Jayson Tatum had one stretch where he completely took over. But their bench failed to provide much support and Gordon Hayward took an 0-for-5 in 22 lackluster minutes.

The problem with playing Golden State is that even when your stars come to play, you have to be almost perfect in every other facet of the game. You have to be able to match the moments when Steph or Klay starts cooking, or when Shaun Livingston suddenly cuts at just the right moment. More than anything you have to be able to withstand Durant, who is the ultimate difference maker even on this star-studded team.

And you absolutely have to get the loose ball rebound.

“We let our guard down even for a split second and they made us pay all night when we did that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “When we made errors on offense they made us pay; when we made errors on defense they made us pay. So yeah, I thought our guys played really hard. You’ve got to lock down all of your controllables to have a chance to beat this team.”

The Celtics almost did that and maybe they’ll do it again when they travel to Oakland in March. The potential is clearly there. The difference is that while Boston tries to build itself up to that point, the Warriors are already there. If the C’s are still searching for confirmation, the Warriors are merely looking to find someone to give them a contest.

“Well, we needed this game,” Kerr said. “We’ve played three straight opponents all decimated by injuries and we needed to be challenged and we were challenged big time and it could have gone either way.”

It could have, which made it a great regular season game. That’s all we have from the Celtics and Warriors to this point. They’ve given us enough regular season moments that lead to far off thoughts of a bicoastal Finals that has the potential to live up to the hype.

All that can wait a little longer. At least for one night we got the show and it was as good as you can get in this league in January.