Series preview: Boston Celtics vs. Brooklyn Nets

Published April 17, 2022, 2:30 PMPolo Bustamante

It’s a rematch of last year’s first round series with the roles reversed. The Boston Celtics are now the favorites over the Brooklyn Nets.

Last season, the Brooklyn Nets were a stacked team that steamrolled through the Eastern Conference to secure the second seed in the playoffs. The Boston Celtics had to overcome injuries and a lack of identity just to salvage a play-in berth. They entered the playoffs as the seventh seed but were bounced easily in the first round by the Nets.

I can simply copy-paste the paragraph above and switch both teams’ places to get to where both teams are heading into this year’s playoffs. But there are a lot of interesting details that would be lost in that oversimplification.

The Celtics actually started this season looking like last year’s play-in team. They fell to as low as 11th in the East, looking like a team that needed a major overhaul. What they really needed was to embrace Ime Udoka’s strong defensive philosophies. Boston surged in the new year when they turned into the best defensive team in the league with a 106.2 defensive rating.

On the flip side, the Nets started out this season running back their Big Three. That almost immediately backfired on them. Even before the season started they already had to face the prospect of playing without Kyrie Irving who refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine. James Harden underperformed this season and was eventually shipped out before the trade deadline. Kevin Durant, the only consistent one from last year’s trio, sat out 27 games with a knee injury. 

Most compelling storyline 

They say styles make fights. That may be true for this series, but it’s not as simple as offense versus defense for both these teams. What makes this rematch so juicy is how diametrically opposed the identities of both teams are.

When Durant and Irving are at their best, they’re an unstoppable force. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers. The two combined for 59 points and 23 assists in the play-in tournament to advance into the playoffs. Together, they found an answer to everything that the Cavs threw at the Nets.

The problem is that beyond Durant and Irving, the team doesn’t have the talent or identity to win consistently. The rest of the rotation are all so… serviceable. Andre Drummond, Seth Curry, Bruce Brown, Nic Claxton, and Patty Mills don’t inspire fear or confidence. That has severely limited the Nets in what they’re able to do this season. 

Last year, the Nets were the best offensive team in the league. They weren’t going to stop teams, but at least they were going to drop a ton of buckets on opponents. This season, they’re 10th in the league in offense rating, a spot below the Celtics. Defensively, they’re at about the same place as last season (20th in defensive rating). Durant and Irving will need to play perfectly all game long to carry this season’s squad against the Celtics.

There’s no question what the identity of the Celtics are this year. They hammer teams into submission with their defensive intensity. Boston didn’t automatically have that identity to start the season. The team needed to be called out by their spiritual leader, Marcus Smart, for a flame to be lit under them. That flame is now a roaring fire that pushes the team to keep playing their stifling brand of defense.

This isn’t meant to discount the individual talent the Celtics have. While Smart is the head of the Boston attack on both ends of the floor, their biggest guns remain to be Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. 

The two All-Stars are all-around players that fill in a lot of gaps for the team. They’re undeniable scorers who can rival the output of both Durant and Irving. They can also help the team out in many ways, including doing the dirty work inside or helping out as secondary playmakers.

On paper this seems like it’s going to be an easy win for the deeper, more galvanized Celtics. But Durant and Irving are transcendental superstars. They’re more than enough to power the Nets. Which style wins out, a superstar-powered offense or a team-centric defense?

Keep an eye on…

Smart has defended everyone in the league. When I say everyone, I mean it. He’s chased Steph Curry around through a maze of screens and has switched on to Nikola Jokic, defending the MVP one-on-one in the post. It’s going to be interesting to watch him go up against Durant.

Durant is an inhuman scorer with spider-like limbs and a velvety smooth game. He’s seen all kinds of defenses thrown at him. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. In two games against the Celtics this season, he averaged 29 points and eight assists on 53 percent shooting.

Smart won’t be the primary defender assigned to guard Durant. But when he does get the call to take on KD, it’s going to be so fun to watch. I can’t wait for Smart to get unnecessarily fired up every time he successfully gets a stop on one of the best players on the planet.

Winning blueprint

“Now that they don’t have Robert Williams, they have less of a presence in the paint. We can attack Al Horford and (Daniel) Theis. Them not having Robert Williams is huge.”

Those were the words of Brooklyn forward Bruce Brown after their play-in win. That statement could either be prophetic for the Nets or bulletin board fodder for the Celtics.

Williams is one of the best defensive players in the league. He’s a ferocious interior defender, allowing only 25.2 points when he’s defending the paint. He’s also extremely important to the Celtics’ switching defense because of his athleticism and mobility (103.4 defensive rating).

Brown is right. Horford and Theis aren’t the same caliber of defender that Williams is. His recovery from a knee injury could be the opening that the Nets need to steal a few wins and gain momentum in the series. 

If Durant and Irving can attack the paint, or get the switches they need onto the opposing bigs, they can put the Boston defense into uncomfortable situations. That might force Udoka to play an unusual rotation to make up for their holes on defense.

The Celtics need a concentrated effort from everyone on the floor, especially Horford and Theis, to contain the two Nets superstars. Being called out by name should be enough motivation for the two Boston bigs to play even better in the upcoming games. If they can at least mimic the effect of Williams, then the Celtics can continue playing on a string to smother Durant and Irving.