11/16 Game Preview: Warriors at Celtics

BOSTON -- It's early, but is Thursday night's game at TD Garden a preview of the NBA Finals?

The rebuilt Boston Celtics, who lost Gordon Hayward for the season in the first quarter of the first game, then lost two straight before reeling off 13 straight victories, host the champion Golden State Warriors in an early season spectacular.

With the Cleveland Cavaliers struggling and their former No. 2 star Kyrie Irving now leading Boston, the Celtics have emerged as a very real candidate to make it out of the East.

They are No. 1 in the NBA in defense and won their 13 straight by an average of 8.1 points -- coming from 18 points down in two of the victories.

"It sure looks like Boston is the team of the future in the East, with the assets that they still have and their young talent and their coaching, and Kyrie is amazing," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Tuesday's practice. "That looks like a team that is going to be at the top of the East for a long time to come. Whether their time is now or the future, that's to be determined, but they sure look like they want it to be right now.

"They're really sound, and they're motivated. It's a team that's been on the rise the last couple of years. They lost in the conference finals. They want to win a championship, and it looks like it. Even without Gordon Hayward and that awful injury, Boston is just crushing people. So, it's going to be really fun to go against them on Thursday. We know how tough it's going to be."

Says Celtics coach Brad Stevens, in his usual tone of downplaying things: "We have to stay in the moment and be as good as we can be. And then we'll see what the future holds."

The Warriors (11-3, 5-1 on the road) have won their seven straight by an average of 19.8 points. They didn't have Kevin Durant for one game, Steph Curry for another. Draymond Green has also been hurt this season.

But they have nothing on the Celtics when it comes to injuries.

After losing Hayward for the year, Boston went without Marcus Smart for two games, Al Horford for two and Irving for one -- he returned Tuesday night at Brooklyn after missing a game with a slight facial fracture and, wearing a mask, destroyed the Nets.

Asked about his face, Irving said, "It's broken."

But his team, which returned only four players from last year's Eastern Conference finalist, is anything but broken as it chases its first 14-game winning streak since 2010. The franchise record is 19.

"It's always a great challenge to go against those guys," Irving said of the Warriors after Tuesday's win in Brooklyn. "They have unbelievable talent. They built an incredible culture there.

"For us, as a young team coming in, trying to be in that No. 1 spot like they are, and that's being a championship team, we've got to face tests like this in the regular season."

Durant, talking about Curry and the thigh injury that kept him out Monday, said, "Steph has to get that janky thigh right -- we need him out there."

Curry was officially listed as probable for Thursday night after practicing on Tuesday.

"He looked good," Kerr said. "We didn't practice hard (Tuesday), but he's fine. He's probable for Thursday unless he has a setback the next couple of days."

The Warriors, who have beaten the Celtics four straight times, had their 54-game home winning streak snapped by Boston on April 2, 2016 -- and now get a chance to return the favor.

"It's definitely an incredible streak we're on," says Irving. "Now comes the whole media frenzy ... So I'm looking forward to all that hoopla."

Says Stevens of the Warriors: "There's a reason why they haven't played a lot of close games, and it's because they're awfully freakin' good."

Horford returned from his concussion absence with two outstanding games. He is 16-for-19 from the floor and scored 38 points while adding 14 rebounds and seven assists in the two wins.

"We have a young group and a group that's eager to keep getting better," says Horford. "And we're taking it -- you know, there's really no ceiling for us. We're just kind of going and seeing where it takes us."