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It’s rather wild that a Boston Celtics team that powered an expedited rebuild at the expense of the Brooklyn Nets now looks up to discover that the Nets are the biggest impediment in Boston's already stalled title quest.
The Nets were a punchline for six years after mortgaging their future in the quest for immediate title gratification back in 2013. The Celtics utilized the bevy of draft picks extracted to build one of the NBA’s most intriguing young cores, all while positioning themselves as a potential destination for some of the NBA’s most desirable free agents.
How ironic, then, that the headliners on this new Nets super team represent all that could have been for Boston.
The Celtics packed Tom Brady in their carry-on for a trip to pitch Kevin Durant in the Hamptons in 2016. He instead chose to take his title hunt to Golden State. Boston soldiered on but elected to flip Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving in 2017 with hopes of elevating their title chances. Alas, Irving got injured in his first season in Boston then soured on the experience and ultimately left Boston at the altar to join forces with Durant in Brooklyn.
Even James Harden is a bit of a what if — though not nearly to the same degree. Boston’s front office huddled earlier this season to discuss the possibility of seeking the former MVP when it was clear he was forcing his way out of Houston. Electing to preserve their young core was an understandably safe decision but it left the door open for the Nets to further supercharge their title hopes.
Now, after a season of perpetual challenges and frustrations, the Celtics are tasked with finding a way to stymie Brooklyn’s Big Three while positioned as a major underdog in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, which tip Saturday night at the Barclays Center.
“This is a fun challenge,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "They’re a heck of a team but our guys, we have some guys in here that have been through some big-time series before and have raised their level to meet the moment on several occasions. So I’m really looking forward to it.”
The Celtics haven’t encountered a team quite like these Nets. Not only is Brooklyn headlined by two former MVPs and a seven-time All-Star coming off a 50/40/90 season, but their supporting cast is filled with players that will make Boston pay for the tiniest of miscues or lapse in focus.
Brooklyn’s Big Three of Durant, Harden, and Irving played only 414 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass data. But they had a plus-11.1 net rating in that span, including a robust offensive rating of 123.2 that ranked in the 98th percentile among all lineups. A 5-man pairing with that trio and Jeff Green and Joe Harris was plus-26.7 net rating and a 136.4 offensive rating over 151 possessions.
Which is to say that no one has quite had a way to slow these guys down when fully healthy. So what can Boston do?
DEFENDING KEVIN DURANT
Durant is a menace because of his ability to shoot over the top of most defenders. That could mean a lot of responsibility falls on Jayson Tatum here, a less-than-ideal situation given the energy that Tatum is going to have to expend at the offensive end to carry Boston there.
In the one game that Durant played against Boston, the Celtics split the majority of Durant’s offensive possessions between Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart. If Irving and Harden are on the floor, the Celtics won’t have the luxury of floating Smart that way very often. The potential absence of Rob Williams looms large, too, as he at least had the size and verticality to challenge shots on switches. Durant roasted Tristan Thompson in their matchups via the NBA’s tracking data (9 points in 5.4 possessions defended, 4-of-5 shooting), though that was early in the season when Thompson was still finding his legs after the long offseason. Still, it’s not an ideal matchup.
Ultimately, the Celtics need one of their bench 4s — Grant Williams or Semi Ojeleye — to take on the challenge of defending Durant for at least short stretches to take some stress off Tatum.
DEFENDING JAMES HARDEN
Without Brown, the bulk of this task should fall to Smart, who the Celtics will hope can channel some of his old Harden magic and get under his skin like Smart did in the past.
Back in the 2017-18 season, Smart famously drew two late-game charges to swing a game in Boston. In nine minutes of matchup time, Harden was 0-for-9 shooting against Smart that season, per the NBA’s tracking data. Harden scored only 2 points and had 2 turnovers in nearly 9 minutes of matchup time.
The following year, Smart logged 11 minutes of matchup time over two games against Harden and, while the Beard got 17 points against him, it was on 5-of-14 shooting and Smart committed only one shooting foul.
"First off, it’s been fun to be able to go up against a guy of his caliber and to be able to take that matchup on,” said Smart. "It doesn’t change the fact that he’s been more of a playmaker [this season]. He’s still the same Harden. He can get hot, he can get in the zone, and he can change the game himself. So the same way you’ve been guarding him — it’s the same. You’ve just got to be ready for those passes and be ready for him to make more plays than he has in the past. But, other than that, you play him the same way. Just try to go out there and do your best to make it as tough on him for everything that he does.”
Keeping Harden off the foul line seems particularly important for the Celtics.
DEFENDING KYRIE IRVING
So here’s Boston’s conundrum: If Brown was healthy, he could take the brunt of the Harden assignment and help out on Durant, which could free Smart to defend Irving. Without Brown, the Celtics might have to commit heavy to Tatum on Durant and Smart on Harden, which leaves less-than-desirable options for checking Irving.
The Celtics went out of their way to limit the amount of turns that Kemba Walker and Payton Pritchard had to guard Irving during the regular season. Maybe Boston is OK with switching and hoping Fournier’s size can help on a smaller guard but Irving will absolutely punish defenders that can’t stay in front of him.
Maybe Stevens goes to the bench at times and rolls with younger players like Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith to add some switchability on the perimeter. The Nets are going to feast on lapses, though, and younger players have a tendency to make the sort of miscues that can only fuel the Nets’ supporting cast.
Ultimately, with three star options, and Boston’s depth thinned, the Celtics are going to spend much of the game in a bind. On Thursday, Stevens was asked if holding the Nets to 115 points would be good for the Celtics.
“If we score 116,” said Stevens with a sly smile.
Trying to outscore the Nets isn’t a particularly ideal avenue and the Celtics are simply going to need to produce better defensive consistency than we’ve seen throughout the 2020-21 season.
Otherwise, their playoff stay will be as short as most seem to expect in this series.
"They have a lot of talent across the floor, across the board,” said Smart. "It’s going to take all five guys that’s on the court, and whoever comes in, we all have to be locked together. We can’t get down on ourselves if we make a mistake; they hit a tough shot, we have to continue to play and move onto the next one."
PREDICTION: Brooklyn simply has too many offensive weapons for the shorthanded Celtics to keep pace. Nets in 5.