The Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets will meet in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs in an Eastern Conference series. The Celtics come in as heavy underdogs as the 7th seed, as the Nets start what they hope will be a title run as the 2nd seed. The series schedule is as follows:
· Game 1 – Saturday 5/22 at Brooklyn – 8:00 PM ET - ABC
· Game 2 – Tuesday 5/25 at Brooklyn – 7:30 PM ET - TNT
· Game 3 – Friday 5/28 at Boston – 8:30 PM ET - ABC
· Game 4 – Sunday 5/30 at Boston – 7:00 PM ET - TNT
· Game 5* – Tuesday 6/1 at Brooklyn – TBD - *if necessary
· Game 6* – Thursday 6/3 at Boston – TBD - *if necessary
· Game 7* – Saturday 6/5 at Brooklyn – TBD - *if necessary
During the regular season the teams met three times, with Brooklyn winning all three games:
· Brooklyn 123 – Boston 95
· Brooklyn 121 – Boston 109
· Brooklyn 109 – Boston 104
The lopsided first matchup came early in the season, before the Nets traded for James Harden. The Celtics played without Kemba Walker. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined for 66 points in a runaway Christmas Day victory.
The second matchup saw Jayson Tatum wage a shootout with Irving. Harden played for Brooklyn, but Durant missed this game. The Nets buried 19 three-pointers, as they pulled away late for the win.
The final contest was the closest of the bunch, but probably the least instructive. Tatum and Irving were the only ones to play of either team’s top-three players. Irving struggled, but the other Nets stepped up. Joe Harris, Jeff Green, Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown combined for 67 points, as Brooklyn swept the season series.
While Brooklyn enters the playoffs relatively healthy (Spencer Dinwiddie remains out, as he has for several months), the Celtics will be without All-Star Jaylen Brown. An already tough task of hanging with the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving becomes monumental for a shorthanded Boston team. In addition, Robert Williams availability is unknown. Williams’ will likely be a game-by-game decision as he battles turf toe.
On the plus side, the Celtics injury management plan for Kemba Walker seems to have worked. He should be full-go for the series.
Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart vs Kyrie Irving and James Harden
The regular season matchups aren’t overly instructive here. Smart and Irving both played in all three games, but Walker and Harden only appeared once apiece. Smart was solid on offense against Brooklyn, but his defense wasn’t up to par, much like the teams as a whole. Irving put up big numbers against his former team, as he averaged 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in the Nets sweep.
If the Celtics are to be competitive in this series, they need Walker to be the high-scoring player he was over a four-game stint in May. Boston can’t stop Brooklyn’s offense. No one can. Because of that Walker’s got to score in the mid-to-high 20s in points. That will give the Celtics a chance to keep pace and stick around late in games.
It’s maybe never been more important for Smart to play under control and take what comes his way. If Smart tries to fill the Jaylen Brown void on offense, it could go sideways on Boston really quickly. If Smart can focus on his playmaking, he’ll really help the Celtics. The Nets regularly give teams driving lanes with some soft defense. If Smart can get in those gaps to find shooters, or set up the bigs at the rim, he’ll be helpful. If he’s driving to score, it might not go in Boston’s favor.
On defense, Smart has to be the All-Defense level of player that the Celtics expect him to be. He’ll guard everyone from Harden to Irving to Kevin Durant on a fairly regular basis. While the most expected matchup for him would probably be to start games on Harden, Smart might be better off covering Irving out of the gate. That would put Walker on Harden (or on a lesser player), but Walker does a good job of keeping his body in front of guards who play more of a power-game.
Ultimately, Smart can do his part to slow down whoever he guards, but it’s impossible to limit the Nets ballhandlers too much. They’re going to score. It’s up to Boston to exploit them as much as possible going the other way.
Advantage: Brooklyn. Unless Walker and Smart play out of their minds, this matchup will favor the Nets. Harden and Irving are All-NBA level guys, while Walker is an All-Star guy when in top form and Smart is one of the game’s best role players. That’s a pretty drastic difference. The Celtics can hurt the Nets by forcing Harden and Irving to defend. Look for Walker to use a lot of screens, as Boston will inflict a little punishment on whoever is defending him. If Walker can put up points, the Celtics will hang around. If his jumper is off, it’ll be a short series for Boston.
Jayson Tatum and Evan Fournier vs Kevin Durant and Joe Harris/Bruce Brown
It’s not clear who Brooklyn will start alongside Kevin Durant. Bruce Brown has pretty regularly gotten that call, but it’s really Joe Harris’ spot. Harris is coming off a gluteal strain, but is expected to be ready for Game 1.
If Brown starts, expect him to open games by checking Jayson Tatum. Brown is a physical defender and will get into Tatum’s body on that end of the floor. Tatum has a size advantage, but smaller defenders who can disrupt his dribble have given Tatum trouble.
If Harris starts, Boston will have yet another place to attack. James Harden and Kyrie Irving are already two attack-points for the Celtics, but Harris would be another. He’s a competitive defender, but he often struggles to keep up with quicker players, especially off the dribble.
Flip it to the other end of the floor, Harris starting makes the Nets that much more unstoppable on offense. Focus too much on the Big Three and Harris kills with you jumpers and basket cuts. Brown has done a solid job, playing almost like a rim-rolling big at time. But he gives a spot for Boston to “hide” Kemba Walker. He’s also the logical player to help off of, as Brown shot just 28.8% on three-pointers this year.
Much like Kemba Walker, the Celtics need Evan Fournier to consistently put points on the board. Fournier’s role as his role as a secondary or tertiary playmaker off Tatum and Walker will be key. Boston can use him in pick-and-roll actions, or Fournier can attack off closeouts. And if teams don’t close out hard, Fournier can hit open jumpers. The trade deadline acquisition probably has to average 20 points per game for the Celtics to keep pace with the Nets offense. He’s certainly capable of that, but his jumper can be a little streaky.
There isn’t much to say about Tatum or Durant. We know they’ll both be great and each will probably average around 30 points per game. Tatum will have to push that closer to 40, if Boston is to have a chance at the shocking upset. The key will be efficiency for Boston’s young star. If he’s getting downhill and getting layups and to the free throw line, that’s huge for the Celtics. If it’s all jumpers, that puts a lot of variance in how efficient Tatum can be.
Expect the two stars to guard each other a good amount, especially late in games. Tatum may need to open games on Durant as well, but the Celtics switching system will limit how often he’s checking the Nets superstar at the end of possessions.
Advantage: Boston. This one is very, very slightly in the Celtics favor. Tatum and Durant could be a wash, if Tatum is able to be efficient offensively. Fournier should be able to give Boston more production than either Harris or Brown. But that’s an “if” and a “should”. If the Celtics are to have any chance in this series, those need to turn to “when” and “will”.
Tristan Thompson vs Blake Griffin
This one is hard to predict who will even start. Blake Griffin has become the Nets de facto starting center, as they’ve largely removed DeAndre Jordan from the rotation over the last month or so. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Jordan re-emerge as the starter, but for now we’ll assume it’s Griffin.
For the Celtics, it will be either Tristan Thompson or Robert Williams. Given Williams’ injury status, we’re going to lean towards Thompson here. Even if Williams plays, the Celtics may try to limit his minutes some by bringing him off the bench.
Assuming it’s Thompson vs Griffin, you can’t really feature too more different players going head-to-head at the center position.
Griffin’s game is largely perimeter-oriented at this point. Griffin has become more of a threat as a roll-man and in the dunker spot with Brooklyn, but he’s still taking almost half his shots from behind the arc. With the open looks created by his talented teammates, Griffin is hitting 38.3% of his threes with the Nets. He also remains a quality passer that Brooklyn can run the offense through. If you over-commit to staying with one of the Big Three, the fourth player will back-cut you to death and Griffin is often the guy who finds him.
On defense, Griffin is strictly a positional-defender now. His best attribute on that end is taking charges. He’ll regularly give up his body to take the hit. That’s not a bad thing, but it also shows that Griffin can’t really have an impact on defense in any other way. His athleticism has waned enough now that Griffin isn’t quick enough to stay with ballhandlers in pick-and-roll. He’s also not a deterrent at the rim. Lastly, Griffin isn’t the rebounder he once was. He snags boards in his area, but he’s not dominating the glass, and he doesn’t create extra possession either.
For Thompson, his game flips opposite of Griffin. He has all of his offensive impact inside. Despite some ugly moments when he tries to do too much off the dribble, Thompson has been a fairly solid finisher. He’s also the best screener the Celtics have by a wide margin.
Thompson’s primary role offensively will be to free up Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier off screens. Look for Thompson to come with a little something extra on his picks as well, as Boston is going to beat up the Nets offensive stars in the screen-game. Beyond screening, the Celtics need Thompson to create second-chance opportunities on the glass. He’s one of the best offensive rebounders in the NBA and Brooklyn is a slightly below-average rebounding team.
On defense, Thompson has to help protect the paint for Boston. Look for him to sag off Griffin to take away cutters and drivers. If the Celtics get beat by Griffin making three-pointers, so be it. It’s more important that Thompson be there to help at the rim and in good rebounding position. Thompson has to help Boston own the glass, because letting Brooklyn get second chances is death. They’re already good enough on first shots.
Advantage: Even. This matchup is pretty even. Thompson brings far more on defense than Griffin does, and Griffin is an offensive weapon that Thompson can’t match. While their roles are different, if one of them can excel in their role, it would go a long way towards helping their team to a series victory.
Whoever doesn’t start of Tristan Thompson/Robert Williams, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams and Luke Kornet vs Whoever doesn’t start out of Joe Harris/Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, Nicolas Claxton, Landry Shamet, Mike James and Tyler Johnson
It’s youth vs experience here. Boston is going to play mostly players who have three years or less in the NBA. The Nets will counter with some veterans and proven role-players.
It’s pretty simple for the Celtics: the kids have to make shots and compete defensively. If they can do that, Boston has a chance to hang around.
Payton Pritchard has been solid all season. He’s going to get turns guarding Kyrie Irving and James Harden, which is a tough ask for the rookie guard. Pritchard needs to compete in those moments, and he has to outplay his opposite number for the Nets. Whether it’s Mike James or Tyler Johnson, Pritchard has to be better than they are for Boston to win.
On the wing, Aaron Nesmith and possibly Romeo Langford have a big task ahead of them. They have to be solid on defense and they have to contribute on offense. For Nesmith, that means making open jumpers. For Langford, it’s scoring off cuts and in transition.
This feels like a Grant Williams series for the Celtics. For one, we have no idea what Robert Williams’ availability will be. If he can’t play, another big has to give Boston minutes behind Tristan Thompson. The bet here is that Grant Williams gets that shot. He’s smaller, but more mobile than the other Celtics bigs. If the Celtics go with a bit more size, it’ll be Luke Kornet who gets the call.
Brooklyn tends to go small a lot up front. Whether that is with Blake Griffin starting or Jeff Green playing small-ball five, the Nets aren’t overpowering you. The only traditional big Brooklyn will definitely play is Nicolas Claxton, and he’s a good one. Whereas Griffin and Green hurt teams from the perimeter, Claxton is a paint machine. He beats opponents on rim rolls or by being a drop-off target from the dunker spot.
Landry Shamet gives the Nets shooting weapon, even in a down year for him. He’s had some big moments against Boston in the past, so identifying him early and not losing track of him is big for the Celtics. If Joe Harris doesn’t start and comes off the bench, this focus has to amp up times a thousand.
Advantage: Brooklyn. Even if the Celtics starters can keep pace with the Nets openers (a huge ask), Brooklyn has the advantage off the bench. With a more veteran group, and more versatility, the Nets know what they are going to get every night from their reserves. Boston’s group is more of a game-to-game basis. If the kids can hit shots, the Celtics can tighten this gap. But first-time playoff runs aren’t usually kind to young players. It would be a lot to expect that to change for Boston.
Brad Stevens vs Steve Nash
This one is really about Brad Stevens having been there and done that as a coach. Steve Nash has made playoff runs as a player, but this is his first journey through the postseason as a coach.
For the Celtics to compete, Stevens has to be the sideline wizard everyone fell in love with during his early years. His team is overmatched in this series, so Stevens has to find or create advantages somehow.
Look for Boston to play with a faster pace than in the regular season. That’s a good way to attack the Nets before they can set their defense. Brooklyn can be somewhat solid when they get back, so the Celtics have to steal easy offense early in the shot-clock where they can.
It’s going to important for the Celtics to play “scrappy” too. They need to be active against ballhandlers and in passing lanes. The Nets can get a little loose with the ball sometimes, and that’s one way for Boston to steal some offense.
On the other end, the Nets aren’t an overly active defensive team. They don’t force turnovers. They allow teams to get up a lot of good looks at the basket, both behind the arc and inside the paint.
One key for both teams: How wide is the margin in the free throw battle? Brooklyn doesn’t foul much. Boston doesn’t draw a lot of fouls. On the other end, the Nets live at the charity stripe and the Celtics foul a lot. It’s likely final scores will mirror this disparity. If it’s wide, expect Brooklyn to cruise to blowouts. If Boston can tighten it up, even just slightly, games could be close down the stretch.
Advantage: Boston. This is having faith in Brad Stevens having been there and done that. Stevens will have some sort of rotation or strategic wrinkle that Brooklyn hasn’t seen before. Timeout usage will also be key, as Boston can’t get buried in an avalanche when the Nets go on runs. In many ways, Steve Nash is going to be figuring out his team on the fly. The Nets Big Three haven’t played much together, let alone this roster as a whole. If that’s bumpy to start out, look for Stevens to use his relative continuity to steal a small advantage. Finally, Stevens has already talked about “maximizing possessions” being a key. That includes Stevens finding his old ATO magic to create scoring opportunities for Boston whenever possible.
Nets in five games. Brooklyn just has too much talent. In spots where Boston has an advantage, it’s negligible. Jayson Tatum has to be otherworldly, while Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier deliver big scoring for the Celtics to win in this series. If any of those three are off, it’s hard to see Boston keeping pace with Brooklyn scoring-wise. The Celtics best, and only, chance is to steal an early game, and then ride the home crowd to another victory or two. Stealing an early game could happen, as the Nets are going to be figuring out rotations and style on the fly. In some ways, Boston may be better equipped to play close games right out of the gate, because they know what they’re going to do in endgame situations. Brooklyn still has to figure that out.
It would be a monumental upset for the Celtics to win this series. They can’t possibly hope to keep the Nets offense down, so they have to outscore them. That may seem as futile as trying to outrun a lion pride, but it’s Boston’s only chance. They can do it for a game, maybe two, but anything more will miracle.