When the 2018 N.B.A. season tipped off, the smart money was on seeing a showdown between the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors in the N.B.A. finals.
Last season, the Celtics made it to within one game — and one virtuoso performance from LeBron James — of making it to the finals, and that was without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. And the Warrriors are, well, the Warriors, the defending world champs who just happened to pick up All-Star DeMarcus Cousins in the off-season to further fill their well-stocked cupboard of talent.
And while the Celtics haven't necessarily had the season many expected so far, they gave the Warriors a run for their money in a tight 115-111 loss Saturday night that was a mere bounce away from a possible different outcome.
Something in TD Garden felt different well before the start of the prime time matchup. Fans started trickling in early to get a glimpse of Golden State, especially Stephen Curry, whose pre-game routine has become required viewing. More fans were lined up to plead for autographs from the Warriors than the Celtics. It was like watching rock stars tune up their guitars.
While Golden State feels like the main event no matter where they're playing, both teams put on a show. Celtics guard Kyrie Irving got hot early, hitting three treys in the first quarter to light a spark in the crowd, including one from well beyond the arc.
Curry, meanwhile, went scoreless in the first period, a rarity for one of the best shooters in league history. But he quickly turned that around with the five threes he sank in the second quarter.
The two teams continued to trade punches through the second half. Even though the Warriors built up leads several times in the game, they were never to get a lead in the double digits as the Celtics scrapped and clawed their way into the fourth quarter.
Irving went to another level in the fourth, dazzling the crowd with his deep repertoire of moves and uncanny ability to make off-balanced shots at the rim as he finished the game with 32 points.
Still, it wasn't enough. The Celtics couldn't convert multiple looks at potential game-winning shots as valuable seconds ticked off the clock. And when Warriors forward Draymond Green missed two free throws with under a minute left, plenty of time for Boston to rebound and call a timeout to set up one more good look at the basket, hope sparked through the crowd. But then forward Marcus Smart simply slipped as he went for the rebound and Golden State snatched the ball back, giving Curry a trip to the charity stripe where he iced the game with a pair of free throws.
Curry finished the night with 24 points, while his teammate Kevin Durant finished with a smooth 33.
Head coach Brad Stevens acknowledged the Warriors made them pay for any mistakes they made.
"I thought our guys played really hard," Stevens said. "You gotta lock down all of your controllables to have a chance to beat this team."
Center Al Horford, who finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds, downplayed thinking about this as a finals matchup, at least this early in the season.
"You know, I just think that we can play with anyone," Horford said. "It was nice to go out there and compete in that way, give ourselves a chance to win there at the end. You know, they're the team to beat."
Irving was already looking forward to the chance of facing the Warriors again.
"A lot of positives, but like I said, you know, a few bad bounces their way," Irving said. "But I can't wait to play them again. Like I said, it's always fun going against the best, you don't get to do it every single night."
Last year, the Warriors acknowledged the challenge the Celtics pose. It's still a long way until June, but if this is any indication of what to expect, a Boston-Golden State finals may be just what basketball fans need to break the monotony of four consecutive meetings between the same teams.