The Celtics begin their first round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets with a game in the Barclays Center. The Celtics are a big underdog in this series and there aren’t many analysts that even give them a chance at winning a game in the series. In spite of their top 3 players being together for just 8 games this season, the Nets won 48 games and claimed the 2nd seed in the East.
The Nets won all 3 games against the Celtics this season. In their Christmas Day matchup in Boston, the Nets won 123-95. That game was before the trade for Harden, but both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant played. On March 11, in Brooklyn, the Nets won 121-109. The Nets were without Durant in that game but Kyrie and Harden both played. In the third game, also in Brooklyn, the Nets won 109-104 and Durant and Harden were both out.
Kyrie Irving played in all three games this season and seemed to make beating the Celtics personally. He averaged 30.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game and shot 50.8% from the field and 50.0% from beyond the arc in the 3 games against the Celtics this season. It has been almost 2 years since Kyrie left Boston for Brooklyn, but he has not yet played in front of the Garden crowd. That should change if he plays in this series. There should be around 5,000 fans for games 1, 2 and 3 and hopefully a capacity crowd for game 4.
One or more of the Nets’ 3 stars have been out for most of the season. They have played just 8 games together, but it appears that they are healthy just in time for the playoffs. Spencer Dinwiddie has been out for much of the year after tearing his ACL and will miss this series as well. Landry Shamet is listed as probable after spraining his ankle at practice.
Jaylen Brown will miss the series after having surgery on his injured wrist. That is really a blow to the Celtics’ ability to match up with the Nets. Robert Williams has been struggling with turf toe and did not practice on Thursday or Friday. Shams Charania reported that Williams will try to give it a go in this game. He is listed as a game time decision and may or may not start. If he can indeed play, I’m thinking he will likely start. If he can’t play, or is going to be very limited, Tristan Thompson will likely get the start.
Probable Celtics Starters
Robert Williams III (knee) questionable
Jaylen Brown (wrist) out
Probable Nets Starters
Chris Chiozza (hand) questionable
Spencer Dinwiddie (knee) out
Jayson Tatum vs Kevin Durant
Durant is averaging 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game. He is shooting 53% from the field and 45% from beyond the arc. Jayson Tatum is coming off a 50 point game in the play-in tournament and the Celtics will need similar heroics from him in this series. Both players are good defenders and so it may not be easy for either player but both have proved they can hit tough shots.
Kemba Walker vs Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving is averaging 26.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists. He is shooting 50.6% from the field and 40.2% from beyond the arc. He is capable of putting up a lot of points and also seems to try harder against the Celtics and will likely do so in this game as well. Kyrie said that he wanted the matchup with Kemba and now he has it. The Celtics need Kemba to step up and have a big game if they hope to stay with the Nets. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to the Celtics fans for the first time since he left.
Marcus Smart vs James Harden
Harden is averaging 24.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 10.8 assists per game. He is shooting 46.6% from the field and 36.2% from beyond the arc. He has missed considerable time with a hamstring injury and hopefully may be a bit rusty. I’m sure he remembers the 12/28/17 game where Marcus Smart drew 2 charges in the final 10 seconds of a game against Houston that gave the win to the Celtics and can’t help but want to show Smart up in this series.
Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense will always be the key to winning. The Nets are 22nd with a defensive rating of 113.1 while the Celtics are 13th with a defensive rating of 111.8. The Celtics must make defense a priority as the Nets are second in the league in scoring with 118.6 points per game and the Celtics will not win a shoot out with them. The Nets are 1st in the league, shooting 49.4% from the field and 2nd in 3 point percentage with 39.2%. The Celtics must play tough defense both inside and on the perimeter.
Rebound - Along with defense, rebounding is a key to winning. You have to have the ball to score and one way to get the ball is to grab rebounds. Much of rebounding is effort and the Celtics need to put out the extra effort to beat the Nets to the rebounds. Both teams are averaging a little over 44 rebounds per game. The Celtics need to crash the boards as a team and beat the Nets to the rebounds.
Be Aggressive - A team that plays hard can many times beat teams that have more talent. The Celtics need to be the more aggressive team in diving for loose balls and in going to the basket. They have to be more aggressive on defense and grabbing rebounds. They have to be the team that plays harder and the team that wants it more. They have to overcome the Nets’ talent with more effort.
Run and Move the Ball - The Celtics need to run on every possession and try to get easy baskets before the Nets can set up their defense. The Nets play with a 100.3 pace while the Celtics play with a 98.9 pace. The Celtics need to pick up their pace and play faster. They also need to keep the ball moving and find the open man. They can’t win as individuals. They have to win as a team.
Bench Play - The Nets have a veteran bench that has been here before. The Celtics have a very young bench with many who are expected to contribute getting their first taste of the playoffs. The Celtics reserves score just 28% of their points, which is 2nd lowest in the league. Especially without Jaylen Brown’s 24.7 points per game, the Celtics will need their reserves to pick up some of that scoring and will need to play well on both ends of the court.
It’s the Playoffs - Teams who want to advance in the playoffs must up their level of intensity and their level of play. As stated above, the Celtics will be depending on young players who are experiencing the playoffs for the first time while the Nets have mostly veteran players who have been here before. Can the Celtics respond to the need for extra intensity?
Coaching - The Celtics are a huge underdog in this game. If they have one advantage it should be their coach, who has coached in the playoffs every year he has been in Boston except his first season. Steven Nash has played in the playoffs but this is his first time coaching in the playoffs. Can Brad pull a rabbit out of his hat and find a way to give the Celtics an advantage?
Officiating - Just as defense will always be a key to the game, officiating can always be an x-factor. NBA officiating is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates - you never know what you are going to get. Will they call the game tight or will they let them play? Will they favor the home team? Will they be fair and call it even? The Celtics have to adjust to however the officials are calling the game and not lose their focus while complaining about calls.