Every matchup against the Brooklyn Nets starts with some semblance of the same question: how does any defense slow a team featuring three of this generation’s most potent scoring threats?
It’s a legitimate question that needs some answer for any team looking to take down the juggernaut. But the truth is one might not exist.
Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden have been unsolvable offensive machines in their own right for years now. Get them on the same team, surround them with snipers like Joe Harris, and create a culture of unselfishness that produced some of the league’s top assist numbers during the regular season, and even the best defenses can only have so much say in makes and misses when discussing what is statistically the greatest offense of all time.
If you can’t slow the Nets, your best bet is to outrun them in the scoring column. That is the challenge for the Boston Celtics ahead of their first-round matchup with Brooklyn.
Boston had the 10th-ranked offense during the regular season but a lot has changed in that time. The most notable difference being the absence of Jaylen Brown, who was ruled out for the season several weeks ago with a torn wrist ligament. Losing the career-high 24.7 points per game he brought to the table is a tough blow, especially considering the ease with which he created many of those points for himself.
Already several steps behind in the absence of Brown, whatever sliver of a chance the Celtics’ offense has at going toe-to-toe with Brooklyn begins with their leading man.
Jayson Tatum has been phenomenal all year long, upping his scoring to a career-bet 26.4 a night. He’s scored as many as 60 points in a game this season. Fifty points in the play-in victory over Washington was indicative of the levels his talent can reach with heightened stakes and what the Celtics will need against a trio of two former MVP’s and the newest member of the 50/40/90 shooting club.
“(Tatum) has in the past 14 months become the kind of incendiary talent whose capacity to rain fire from all over the court can at least give Boston a puncher’s chance against the elite,” wrote The Ringer’s Dan Devine.
An encouraging sign for the Celtics’ offense has been the reemergence of Kemba Walker. After struggling all season to return to his All-Star form, Walker scored at least 30 in three of his last four games before going for 29 points in the play-in victory.
If the metaphorical bubble wrap Boston kept its point guard in all season long is paying dividends at the right moment, having another All-Star caliber player produce like one is a big boost, especially when Boston’s actual other All-Star is on the mend.
When asked which Celtic outside of Tatum and Walker they’ll have to pay more attention to in the absence of Brown, both Durant and Harden named Evan Fournier.
His Boston tenure didn’t get off to the best start, but as Harden noted, Fournier “showed in Orlando that he can score the basketball at a high clip.” He averaged north of 17 a game in his last five seasons with the Magic, including 19.7 in just over 30 minutes a night this season before being traded after 26 games.
Emerging from a struggle with COVID-19 certainly helped Fournier regain his form. He averaged 19.9 points per game on 54.6 percent shooting in seven games upon returning to the lineup to close the regular season. Like Walker, he seems to be rounding into form exactly when the Celtics need him to.
Though always a wildcard, Marcus Smart has his moments in the traditional spotlight, like when he knocked down eleven 3-pointers to help the Celtics to a 2-0 series lead in their second-round matchup against Toronto in the bubble.
With Robert William’s status for Game 1 and beyond up in the air, the door is certainly open for Tristan Thompson to impose himself on the offensive glass and in the paint against a weak Nets interior. He hauled in 12 offensive rebounds across Boston’s three regular-season meetings with Brooklyn.
The Celtics’ offense would still be longshots to match Brooklyn’s even with Brown healthy and active. Of course, with their second-leading scorer sidelined, the odds are all the more daunting, but that’s why the games are played regardless.
“[The Nets] are a heck of a team, but we have some guys in here who have been through some big-time series before that have raised their level to meet the moment on several occasions,” Brad Stevens said. “And so I’m really looking forward to it.”