Nets vs. Celtics First Round Playoff Preview: 3 Keys to the Series

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·5 min read
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Steve Nash/Kevin Durant/Jayson Tatum/Brad Stevens
Steve Nash/Kevin Durant/Jayson Tatum/Brad Stevens

The Brooklyn Nets found out their first round opponent on Tuesday night, when the Boston Celtics defeated the Washington Wizards, 118-100. Now, the Nets are poised to battle a Celtics team coming off a disappointing regular season, where Brooklyn swept the regular season series 3-0 between both clubs.

Thanks to injuries, the former conference finalist Celtics fell to seventh in the East this season with a 36-36 record. The Nets have overwhelming star power in the form of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. But, even with All-Star forward Jaylen Brown out for the season due to wrist surgery, the Celtics still have elite talent in the form of All-Star Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker.

The Big Three of the Nets only played together for eight games this season, so they could be rusty coming into the heated moments of playoff basketball. It will be an interesting debut for a Brooklyn Nets squad on a quest to compete for the first NBA championship in franchise history.

Season Recap

In head coach Steve Nash’s first season, the Nets played a season that would be best broken down into multiple segments. There was the early stretch with Irving and Durant leading the way with supporting players Spencer Dinwiddie (suffered torn ACL, ending his season early), Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris in the mix. Then, the team made a huge splash after 12 games, acquiring a superstar and former MVP in Harden from the Houston Rockets in a four-team trade in January. Brooklyn traded LeVert to Indiana and Allen to Cleveland in that deal.

With Harden on the team, the Nets took off, winning 14 of 15 games. Brooklyn continued to win despite numerous injuries and situations that caused their Big Three to miss numerous games. We saw Irving and Harden play together, Durant and Harden without Irving and finally Irving and Durant without Harden, but rarely saw all three play at the same time. The Nets also made a couple of other in-season additions, adding Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge on the buyout market. Aldridge later retired due to a heart condition.

Durant (26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists) and Harden (24.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10.9 assists) easily would’ve been MVP candidates had they been able to play more than 35 and 44 games respectively. Defense was also a major problem to be concerned with. Brooklyn finished first in offensive efficiency, but just 23rd in defense. They improved a bit from earlier this season, but they will test the theory that mediocre to bad defenses can’t win a championship.

The Nets finished with the second-best record (48-24) in the Eastern Conference. The stretch helped propel the franchise to its best regular season in franchise history since they moved from the ABA to the NBA in 1976.

3 Keys to Winning the Series

1) Containing Tatum: First, the gameplan has to start with defending Tatum. The two-time All-Star has been great for the Celtics, averaging career-highs of 26.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists this season. Tatum scored 50 points in Tuesday night’s win, and he also had a 60-point masterpiece against the San Antonio Spurs as well as a 53-point explosion against the Minnesota Timberwolves in April.

The Nets have a few options to guard Tatum and they’re sure to give him several different looks. Jeff Green and Durant likely will be primary defenders on Tatum, but since the Nets switch heavily, Harden, Irving and Harris as well as the rest of the Nets' roster might take turns guarding Boston’s star. In Boston’s win on Tuesday, Tatum mercilessly hunted Wizards forward Davis Bertans time after time on switches and attacked out of isolation. Expect Boston to go to isolations against mismatches in the halfcourt often.

2) Bang the boards: Brooklyn is not a particularly good defensive rebounding team. They are 23rd in defensive rebounding rate, while the Celtics are third in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage. With Tristan Thompson available as one of the best offensive rebounders in the NBA, it’s paramount that Brooklyn tries to limit Boston. The Celtics don’t have as much firepower as Brooklyn, but extra scoring opportunities can even out Brooklyn’s advantage.

3) Attack Fournier and Walker: The point guard matchup should be extremely entertaining. Irving (26.9 points and 6.0 assists) is playing his former team and should expect raucous boos from the limited crowd in Boston. He has performed really well this season, and with Harden and Durant available, he can expect less help or double-teams on defense, opening up some of his electric forays to the rim. Brown’s absence also opens up scoring opportunities for either Harden or Irving. With Marcus Smart as the only elite perimeter defender on Boston, the Nets should look to attack Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker in isolation, or pick and roll situations with their two backcourt stars.

Brown’s injury also puts extra pressure on Walker. A former All-Star, Walker has experienced ups and downs this season, recovering from a knee injury. He’s played better lately, scoring 29 points in the play-in game and he’s averaged 29.6 points over his last five games.

The Nets have proven to be a deep team with Landry Shamet, Griffin, Bruce Brown, Green and Harris all making significant contributions in supporting roles. Boston will also likely need a third scorer to at least contribute and match Brooklyn’s high octane offense. If the Nets can limit Smart and Fournier, the series will likely end in short fashion.