SAN FRANCISCO: A resurgent Golden State Warriors are bidding to reclaim their throne at basketball's summit against a Boston Celtics team chasing history when the NBA Finals tip-off on Thursday.
After a gruelling regular season and a roller coaster play-off campaign, Golden State and Boston will open their best-of-seven finals showdown on Thursday in what has all the makings of a classic between two evenly matched teams.
Two years ago, the once-mighty Warriors -- the dominant NBA franchise of the past decade -- appeared to be facing up to the end of an era.
A league worst 15-50 record left them propping up the foot of the Western Conference, a precipitous fall for a franchise that graced the NBA Finals five times in a row between 2015 and 2019, winning three championships.
But with three pillars of that dynastic run -- Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson -- back to fitness, and under the shrewd leadership of head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors are back in their preferred habitat.
The Warriors' swift return to the finals is a byproduct of a culture that endured throughout the depths of 2020's miserable 15-win season, or last season's elimination in the play-in tournament.
"The times when it was rough, we were losing, I think we still had a good group of guys," said Warriors centre Kevon Looney, a member of the 2017 and 2018 title-winning Warriors teams.
"We were still able to keep that same culture in the locker room, even though we were losing. We still played our style of basketball, still holding guys to a high level and a high standard."
While relatively recent recruits such as Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga have all played key roles in this season's resurgence, the old guard of Curry, Green and Thompson have led the way in the play-offs.
Curry was named the Western Conference finals MVP, Green has been his usual combative self, while Thompson, who returned this season after a two-year injury absence, has produced bursts of scoring at pivotal moments in series wins over Memphis and Dallas.
'THE PIECES FIT'
"A DNA that you can't really teach," was how Curry described the Warriors' locker-room culture.
"The pieces fit, first and foremost, and our core and how we play and what we do, what makes us unique and different," the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player added.
Whether Curry is left celebrating a fourth NBA title by the end of this year's finals will depend on his team's ability to navigate their way around a Celtics team that in the eyes of many has been the most complete unit in the post-season.
"The Celtics are going to win the series and they are going to win the world championship because they are the best team remaining in the play-offs right now in my opinion," was the unambiguous verdict of NBA icon Charles Barkley.
The Celtics would become the most successful franchise in NBA history with an 18th title, putting them one clear of their bitter rivals the Los Angeles Lakers.
Boston's offense has been spearheaded by the superb form of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, while the Celtics defence led by Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III has proved to be a formidable barrier.
The Celtics, who started the season as 50-1 outsiders for the title, have made a nonsense of those odds since surging into the play-offs after the mid-point of the regular season.
The star-studded Brooklyn Nets were swept aside 4-0 in the first round, before the Celtics then dispatched the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in the second round.
In the Eastern Conference finals, top seeds Miami were beaten 4-3, the Celtics sealing victory with a gutsy game seven win on Sunday in Florida.
The fate of the series may well hinge on which team best manages its roster Both Williams and Smart have been nursing knocks in recent weeks; and whether their battered bodies can last another long series has to be open to question.
A gulf in experience between the two rosters may also shape the outcome.
The Celtics roster has zero games of NBA Finals experience; Golden State has a combined 123 games of experience.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka however insists experience won't be an issue.
"I don't think any of our guys are awed or intimidated by the moment at all," Udoka said this week.
"We understand what it is, we know the opponent in front of us, and for us, as always, this year, it's been business as usual, going on the road, not fazed by that at all." -- AFP