In Game 1, the Celtics kept it close, in large part because their defense held up against the Nets’ offense. In Game 2, the Celtics got great shots that didn’t go down and couldn’t keep up with Brooklyn’s onslaught of points in a blowout. Going into Game 3, Boston hopes to get the best of both worlds.
“First game, I thought we were good defensively. Second game, we weren’t as good. We need to get back to being a little more solid and a little bit better on that end. I thought we attacked a little big better in Game 2. Hopefully, we’ll be able to build off of that heading into Game 3,” Brad Stevens said after Thursday’s practice on the eve of the Celtics’ first home game in the series.
It truly has been a Dickens of a series so far. During the regular season, the Celtics finished the season as a middling defensive team allowing 111.8 points per 100 possessions (13th in the NBA). More so, it’s their inconsistency that has plagued them all year, but including the play-in game against the Wizards, they’ve found some footing on defense — no pun intended considering that Robert Williams’ turf toe has limited his playing time, but not his impact so much when he’s on the floor.
Stevens acknowledged just how much of a “wild card” he will be moving forward. Timelord has only managed to play 39 minutes in the series so far, but the eye test matches the advanced analytics. His Game 1 eleven points, nine rebounds, and nine blocks stuffed the box score and changed the game. James Harden said, “he contested everything, both at the rim and on the perimeter...he’s one of the reasons why we didn’t shoot so well.”
He’s the only regular rotation player with a net positive when he’s on the floor (+4.7) and is sorely missed when he’s on the bench (-33.3 net rating, lowest on the team). After a scary fall in the play-in game and some load management in the first two games in Brooklyn, Williams didn’t appear on the latest injury report and could be a full go at home tonight.
Offensively, don’t let the 22-point loss in Game 2 fool you. Boston was much better in Game 2 and that was playing most of the second half without their offensive engine, Jayson Tatum, who left the game after getting poked in the eye by Kevin Durant. Per NBA Stats’ tracking, the Celtics offense generated 47 uncontested field goal attempts and made 19 for 40.4% in Game 1. Three nights later, they went 20-of-54 on open shots (37%). A more aggressive approach against Brooklyn’s switching defense generated more looks at the rim. Tristan Thompson chipped in with eight offensive rebounds as well.
“I thought we did get some really good looks in Game 2, but it was one of those game where your backs are up against the wall and every shot takes on that much more significance, especially when they’re going like they were going earlier. We missed and we couldn’t keep up with them.”
Unfortunately, the Nets played better—infinitely better—on that side of the ball, too. In addition to Brooklyn’s torrid shooting from behind the arc, the Nets also bruised Boston in the paint. After making just 13-of-24 at the rim in Game 1, the Nets made 21-of-34 in Game 2, including a handful of age-defying dunks by Blake Griffin who went 6-for-6 deep in the paint. Some of that was over rotating and not rotating, but some of that was just not matching Brookyn’s physicality.
“Your chances of winning and advancing when you get to this level — obviously, there’s a lot of skill that comes into play and there’s a lot of talent, but those are the determining factors,” Stevens said. “Are you going to compete at your utmost? Are you going to play at the right physicality level and compete at that level that puts you in a position to have a chance to win and that’s what we have to do. It doesn’t really matter necessarily what one’s reputation is going into a game. It’s what you do when that ball is tipped. And tomorrow, to be the best version of ourselves, we’re going to have to play that way.”
The playoffs are all about adjustments. That’s the sports cliche. But playing against three future Hall of Famers in Brooklyn, scheming against them isn’t just the difference between checkers and chess. It’s picking between hemlock and nightshade and seeing if you can stomach it for 48 minutes and remain standing in the end.
Even after two demoralizing losses, the Celtics have learned what’s worked and what hasn’t against the Nets, but we’ve seen enough playoff basketball games though, right? At some point, the X’s and O’s don’t matter, particularly when you’re this deep of a hole.
“We’re down 2-0. Tomorrow is important. Tomorrow, the edge, the pride, the competitiveness needs to be at its best level. I feel good about things we’ve done in each of these games. Game 1 was more representative of how we have to play to be successful. We have to be much more physical. We have to be better defensively. Hopefully, we can attack better as these games go on. Edge, competitive level is a huge huge part of the weekend.”