The Wizards were the hottest team in the league heading in the playoffs. Washington finished the season 17-6 powered by the league’s second leading scorer in Bradley Beal and the NBA’s whirling dervish, Russell Westbrook who again finished the year averaging a triple double.
And even with the Celtics limping to the postseason with a variety of injuries, some nagging, others more consequential, they dispatched the 8-seed in a 118-100 blowout in the play-in tournament.
But that was one game. Anybody can get hot for one game and Jayson Tatum did to the tune of 50 points on Tuesday night. That actual playoffs and beating a team four times in a seven-game series is something else.
Head coach Brad Stevens knows this heading into a formidable matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. He called them “probably the most talented team that’s been put together since I’ve been in the NBA.” Now, tasked with stopping two former MVP’s and a two-time All-NBA player that he used to coach in Boston, he knows that his young Celtics team will have to be nearly perfect to pull off the upset.
“You gotta make everything as difficult as possible. It’s easier said than done. They’re the kind of team that you’re going to have to challenge everything. You’re going to have to take care of the basketball. You’re going to have to sprint to take away any easy transition baskets. You’re going to have to take away easy baskets on cuts and rebounds, because if they’re able to add up a number of easy baskets that way through their motor and energy and a lack of playing the right way on our part, then that becomes all those other shots that they make become too much to overcome,” Stevens said.
Through the entire year, the Nets had the most efficient offense in the league at 117.3 points per 100 possessions. By comparison, Boston clocked in at 113.1. That’s only a four-point difference, but there’s an explosiveness to Brooklyn’s attack that can demoralize any team.
Against the Celtics, the Nets averaged 20.3 fast break points in their three wins, most given up to a team by Boston all year. They shot a blistering 43.7% from behind the arc and went to the line 27 times per game. For Boston to even have a chance to steal a single game, they’ll have to cut down on those easy buckets.
What’s even scarier is that Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden played only seven games together.
“In an ideal world, you want to stay out of rotations as much as possible. That’s why people all over the league have as many versatile defenders as they can where they switch all over the place and then you try and limit the rotations because that’s inevitably how teams get layups, threes, and rebounds,” Stevens said.
“That said, these guys force some of that with their outstanding individuals: Irving’s ability to beat anyone in one-on-one situations — he’s incredible; Durant’s ability to shoot over people and score in a variety of ways; and Harden’s ability to do that and lead the league in assists.”
Against the Wizards, the Celtics survived with primarily an eight-man rotation that included sophomore Romeo Langford and rookie Aaron Nesmith. With Brooklyn’s perimeter attack, expect more of the same and another trial by fire for the Celtics’ young players. It’s a tall task for sure, but the foundation of a franchise that has gone to three conference finals in four years is still in place.
“This is a fun challenge. They’re a heck of a team,” Stevens said. “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 and so, I’m really looking forward to it.”