2022 NBA first-round playoff previews: (2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets
The Eastern Conference’s second-seeded Boston Celtics and seventh-seeded Brooklyn Nets meet in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. The Nets beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in tournament.
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How they got here
Boston Celtics (51-31)
Few teams have gone from so mediocre to so dominant in a single season. The Celtics were three games under .500 on Jan. 6, 11th place in the Eastern Conference. The offense was a nightmare. There were real discussions about whether Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could coexist on the same career path. Ime Udoka's coaching job status was in limbo midway through his first season at the helm. They were a mess.
Since then, they have registered the best defense in the league by a wide margin, an elite offense (118.5 points per 100 possessions) and an astounding +13.5 net rating — almost twice that of the title-favorite Phoenix Suns. They have absolutely destroyed teams, essentially operating like the 1996 Chicago Bulls.
Tatum made the leap to true superstardom. The Celtics traded their misfit pieces for Derrick White and the return of Daniel Theis at the deadline. Marcus Smart is playing the best basketball of his career. Robert Williams III emerged as an elite vertical threat (at least until he suffered a knee injury that could cost him much, if not all, of this series). Al Horford is enjoying a career resurgence with his old team. Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard both shot better than 40% on respectable 3-point volume. Everything clicked at once.
Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
Where do we begin?
Kevin Durant missed 21 games with another leg injury. Kyrie Irving protested vaccines. James Harden underperformed until passive-aggressively demanding a trade. Ben Simmons still has not played a game for them. Joe Harris is out for the season. Blake Griffin lost his spot in the rotation. LaMarcus Aldridge might as well have. De'Andre Bembry and James Johnson went from playing real minutes to being waived.
There has been no rhyme or reason to this Brooklyn season. The Nets played like a middle-of-the-road team for its entirety, their above-average offense just good enough to offset their below-average defense.
Yet, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks actively avoided facing Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs, because with Durant and Irving on the floor for more than 500 minutes this season, the Nets have been an offensive juggernaut (122.8 offensive rating), outscoring foes by 13.1 points per 100 possessions. Brooklyn has two of the most brilliant isolation scorers in NBA history. That is reason enough to fear them.
Head to head
The Celtics won their regular-season series against the Nets, 3-1.
Brooklyn's lone win came on the eve of Thanksgiving, when Dennis Schroder, Romeo Langford and Jabari Parker were in Boston's rotation. The Celtics responded with a pair of blowout victories in February, when none of the Nets' stars was available. The only game of substance between the two teams came on March 6, when Tatum was the best player on the floor, scoring 54 points opposite Durant's 37 in a 126-120 victory.
The Celtics go six deep with fully switchable defenders, and seven if Robert Williams is healthy. Tatum, Brown and Smart are guaranteed to close. They are +14.3 points per 100 possessions, regardless of who plays with them. Horford has been there too many times before not to trust him. How White and Grant Williams are employed in late-game situations will depend on their level of play and Brooklyn's matchups.
Slot Durant, Irving and Seth Curry into any closing lineup for Brooklyn, so long as Curry's ankle is not bothering him. In late-game situations, the Nets have alternated between Bruce Brown's defense and Goran Dragic's offense, as well as Andre Drummond's rebounding and Nicolas Claxton's athleticism at center.
Brooklyn coach Steve Nash has increasingly relied on Durant, Irving, Curry, Brown and Drummond at the end of the season, but whatever five-man unit he chooses, each of them has multiple defensive liabilities.
Matchup to watch
Durant has repeatedly referenced Tatum as his heir apparent, but the Celtics star's coronation could come earlier than his Nets counterpart expected. Tatum dropped 50 points in Boston's lone win against Brooklyn in last year's first round. That was a warning. This is his chance to meet Durant on his level for a full series.
They exclusively defended each other in last year's playoffs, save for the matchups they hunted. Tatum scored 46 points against Durant, and Durant scored 44 against Tatum, per the NBA's tracking data. Brooklyn had the better supporting cast a year ago, when Irving and Harden played the entire series. Tatum has a better team around him this time, and if he hangs with Durant again, the series is Boston's to lose.
BetMGM series odds
Boston Celtics (-140)
Brooklyn Nets (+115)
Celtics in six.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach