As Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown lead sweep of Nets, Celtics' future is no longer murky

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Forsberg: As Jays lead sweep of Nets, Celtics' future is crystal clear originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Three years after Kyrie Irving ditched the Boston Celtics' "young guys" in favor of playing with his championship-decorated buddy in Brooklyn, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown spearheaded a four-game sweep of the superteam Nets in the opening round of the 2022 NBA playoffs.

Boston’s unblemished series triumph has to be extremely satisfying given the uncertainty that enveloped this team in the aftermath of Irving’s departure. But Irving's decision to skip town accelerated the Jays' development and forced Boston’s young duo to embrace being the pillars of a franchise that didn’t have any other obvious path back to title contention beyond Tatum and Brown evolving into superstars.

Celtics Talk: Takeaways from Celtics sweeping Nets, and what happens next? | w/ Amina Smith | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Now, that’s happened. Tatum cemented himself as one of the league’s few two-way superstars during this series while taking on the challenge of defending Kevin Durant. Brown saved some of his finest work for the fourth quarters, including the final minutes of Game 4 while Tatum was on the bench after fouling out on a questionable whistle.

The Celtics emerged from their first-round triumph with a newfound swagger. While others in the Eastern Conference jockeyed to avoid the Nets in fear of what Irving and Durant might do on the playoff stage, Boston bet on itself and has been richly rewarded.

Part of that prize will likely be a second-round showdown with the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. But the Celtics have proven themselves ready for any challenge.

"I know so many people thought that we should have tried to play somebody else in the first round,” said Tatum. "Our mindset was that we were probably going to have to play them eventually. And I’m assuming the road to the championship is never easy. You’ve gotta play against the best. So we took on that challenge and we knew it was going to be tough.

"I think that was good for us. Just knowing who they’ve got on their team and what they’re capable of had us that much more locked in from the first game. Even though we swept them, buzzer-beater Game 1, down 17 Game 2, five-point game with eight minutes left in Game 3. And then we won by eight tonight. Every game was tough but we were locked in from the beginning."

Even if Durant wasn’t quite himself, Tatum deserves credit for any uncertainty and put on a defensive masterclass. Tatum plunked down first, last, and a security deposit to live in Durant’s airspace for the past nine days. Over 30 minutes, 23 seconds of matchup time, Tatum limited Durant to 12 points on 3-of-18 shooting (16.7 FG%) with 12 turnovers and two blocks, per the NBA’s defensive tracking data.

And it wasn’t just Tatum. Every player on Boston’s roster took a turn on Durant at one point or another.

One of the best moments of Game 4 came with under five minutes to play when the Nets called timeout after falling behind by eight. Durant dribbled across midcourt while Steve Nash called for the stoppage but, instead of marching to Boston’s bench, Grant Williams raced back in front of Durant and ensured he wouldn't get off a no-stress jumper.

It was a Kevin Garnett-like moment. There’s a notion in the NBA that a shooter just needs to see the ball go through the hoop once -- even if it’s not during actual game action -- to light their fuse. So Garnett would routinely snatch post-whistle shots to mess with opponents. Williams exuded the same energy.

After Boston’s Game 1 triumph, Williams had noted, "Everything has to be tough. Not just [Durant] walking up and down the court, but him trying to just get a cup of water on the sideline."

Williams followed through on that pledge. Durant finished 6-of-20 with five turnovers when defended by Williams, per NBA tracking data.

A tougher assignment likely awaits in Round 2. The Celtics are going to have be especially creative to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won’t settle for contested jumpers the way Durant did.

But there is plenty of time to look ahead. Today is an opportunity to reflect. And the Celtics should take a moment to appreciate all that went right in Round 1.

For all their dominance in the second half of the season, Boston hadn’t proved it could consistently win close games against elite competition. All four of the Celtics’ Round 1 triumphs triggered the clutch criteria (score within five, final five minutes) and the Celtics absolutely dominated in those instances. Boston had a plus-58.8 net rating in 10 minutes of clutch time and outscored the Nets by 15 points over that span.

Sprinting to the finish

Celtics' net rating in clutch situations (playoffs)

60.2

Celtics' net rating in clutch situations (reg. season)

-9.5

Variation

Double

What’s more, Boston found four different ways to win close games. There was the frenetic final minute of Game 1 with Marcus Smart feeding Tatum for his spinning, buzzer-beating layup over Irving inside TD Garden. Boston rallied out of a 17-point hole in Game 2 then raced away at the finish line. During the two games in Brooklyn, Boston repeatedly stiff-armed all of the Nets’ charges, showing a resiliency and composure that we didn’t know existed with this team.

Much of that quiet confidence seems like an extension of head coach Ime Udoka, who ran circles around poor Steve Nash in this series. (Hey, there’s only so much coaching you can do when you’ve got Kyrie on your team). Udoka pushed all of the right buttons throughout the series and routinely made the right tweaks at halftime to allow his team to thrive.

Udoka set the tone by encouraging his team to push for that No. 2 seed before the playoffs and used his knowledge of Brooklyn’s superstars to aid Boston’s sweep.

"We all came to the conclusion that, look man, if we want to do something special, ain't no shortcuts, ain't no trying to manipulate or ducking," said Brown. "Sometimes you gotta take the hard way, or what’s perceived to be that way, and let the chips fall where they may. Ime definitely led us in that direction, and we all agreed and followed suit.

"Ime, for a first-year head coach, plenty of poise. I know he played the game and has been on championship teams, and you could tell. Because in high-pressure moments, even like [Game 4], he seemed to have the poise. He wanted us to stay calm and often times when you are playing for a coach, his leadership is going to reflect onto the floor.

"So we stayed poised, we stayed calm. Even when JT fouled out, we played good basketball down the stretch and held on."

A year ago, it was Irving, in his logo-stomping sneakers, guiding the Nets to a gentleman’s sweep of an overmatched and undermanned Boston squad. It ushered in a tumultuous offseason with Boston making rare changes to the coaching staff and front office. Amid an 18-21 start, it was fair to wonder if the Celtics had lost their road map back to being a contender.

With some scotch tape, they pieced that map back together. Udoka stayed on his team about playing to his standards -- putting defense first and moving the basketball on the offensive end -- and first-year general manager Brad Stevens tinkered with the roster at the trade deadline to deliver a more ideal mix of talent that played to Udoka’s desires.

The Celtics were the best team in basketball over the final three months but still proved something in the opening round of the playoffs. They didn’t tempt the basketball gods by seeking an easier path and instead made short work of two former champions in Round 1.

In the same way that Irving saged the TD Garden floor with hopes of exorcising any Boston demons, this series might have been the "young guys'" way of putting that era in the rearview mirror. Tatum put the rest of the NBA on notice by dominating a series that pitted him against maybe the best scorer of the current generation.

There are more challenges ahead and the Celtics are going to have to play even crisper than they did in this series. But going through the Nets might have provided the sort of jolt that this group needed to truly morph into title contenders.

Few could have envisioned this team being in this position three years ago. Heck, it seemed even more improbable three months ago.

But the Celtics met the moment. And now they’re ready for whatever challenges lie ahead.