It has been a tale of two games for the Boston Celtics over the last week. They finished off preseason play with a 113-89 thrashing at the hands of the new-look Brooklyn Nets. Boston then built a 17-point lead in its regular season debut before needing the heroism of Jayson Tatum and a bit of good fortune to eke out a one-point victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
A Christmas Day rematch with Brooklyn offers the Celtics an expedited opportunity at redemption for such an astonishing blowout not seven days later. Helping them do so should be the momentum established after a win over the league’s most winningest team over the last two seasons.
The biggest difference between the loss to the Nets and the win over the Bucks is also the simplest. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 35 points on 12-of-32 shooting (3-for-16 on threes) versus Brooklyn. They went for 63 on 25-of-52 (9-for-21 on threes) against Milwaukee.
Especially in the absence of Kemba Walker, those two must power Boston’s offense to offer any chance of keeping pace with what is already looking like an explosive Nets attack.
Brown and Tatum have each made tremendous strides in similar areas that have them generating most of their own looks. It’s why the Celtics feel comfortable burdening them with so much of the offense.
Against two scorers the caliber of KD and Kyrie, Boston’s young duo will have to go tit-for-tat every step of the way.
While the Celtics’ offense offered a strong showing in Tuesday’s opener from their two leaders and a surprise 19 points from Jeff Teague off the bench, their defensive effort has been a different story entirely from preseason onward.
Boston’s defensive rating ranked 17th in the preseason. Concerns were hardly quelled when the games began to matter with the 121 points surrendered to the Bucks.
A lot of things went wrong for the Celtics in that game despite the win. Most alarming was a lack of resistance on the interior. Even with the addition of Tristan Thompson and his eight boards in 22 minutes, Boston was outrebounded by 15 and came up short in crucial swing elements like points in the paint (-10) and second-chance points (-9).
The Nets are not as physically imposing as the Bucks, more likely to shoot over or maneuver around a defender than plow through them. That creates a different set of challenges for Boston to adjust to. With all the qualifiers of a short training camp in an exhibition game that didn’t matter, they weren’t successful at their first crack a week ago. Brooklyn was 16-of-35 on threes and held a 20-4 advantage in fast break points last Friday.
Neither Tatum, Brown nor Marcus Smart are answers to the problems Durant and Irving rain upon opposing defenses. Hardly anyone in the NBA is. Any rational coach knows the best course of action is to make the inevitable gaudy stat lines as difficult to come by as possible.
Let Durant sprint out of the corner past all five Celtics for an uncontested dunk, however, and no amount of points by Tatum and Brown can close the gap Brooklyn is assured to create.
Maybe the best way to limit a superstar scorer is to ensure they never get their looks to begin with. Send a second defender to the ball and get it out of the hands of the one who can do the most damage and force anyone else to beat you.
The Nets don’t just have the personnel to make defenses pay for abandoning any three of the players who share the court with their two stars. They also seem to be in the early stages of applying a style to accentuates that advantage.
Milwaukee made just 212 passes against the Celtics. That number would’ve ranked dead-last last season by more than 30. They are driven by an assortment of battering rams, each taking turns to produce points one at a time with hardly any assistance from the other.
KD and Kyrie might be the hubs of Brooklyn’s offense, which will certainly lend itself to a good chunk of do-it-yourself basketball. But Steve Nash has implemented a level of team-wide unselfishness in an attempt to take full use of the depth at his disposal.
A Hall-of-Fame point guard who ranks third all-time in assists, Nash must crack a smile seeing his team assist on 62.8 percent of its 80 combined field goals against Boston and Golden State. Such rapid ball and player movement can produce open layups like this.
Asking Boston’s defense to afford more attention elsewhere when already lining up against two of the deadliest scorers of their generation doesn’t seem fair. But the most dangerous offenses are the ones attacking from all angles and Brooklyn is fully capable of such an assault.
Joe Harris finding open 3-pointers, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert slashing to the bucket unopposed and multiple Nets winding up in double-figures is when a dominant offense becomes nearly unsolvable.
The Celtics face somewhat of an uphill battle to begin the new season, tasked with pushing on in the absence of Walker while integrating new faces and filling the void left by old ones. They will try to hold steady atop the Eastern Conference, an additional challenge made difficult by Brooklyn’s emergence.
However, Christmas Day offers a strong platform to build the foundation of a budding rivalry between two Atlantic Division foes. For Boston to take the early lead will require the knowledge of the last two games and how best to use it.