Forget about the Brooklyn Nets for a moment. It’s not easy, but just try to forget they exist.
Forget how unbelievably talented Kevin Durant is. Forget how much you despise Kyrie Irving. Forget making yourself dizzy trying to figure out whether or not they can magically turn it on at the right time.
If the Celtics play the way they’ve been playing for the last three months, and trust what’s gotten them here, they should be able to beat the Nets. TNT’s Charles Barkley even said so, so it must be true. If they continue to make the extra pass, excel defensively and get steady bench production, they’ll be in an ideal spot to beat anyone.
Here are five things that need to happen for the Celtics to make a deep run:
They need to continue to move the ball, including late in games.
The Celtics have been at their best this season when they’re zipping the ball around, making the extra pass and turning down good looks for great ones. There’s a reason basketball clichés exist. They’re true, and they’re particularly pertinent with this team.
Naturally, there will be some possessions in the playoffs where the Celtics give Jayson Tatum space and let him work his magic, but that shouldn’t become the norm. Tatum averaged a career high 4.4 assists per game, including 4.6 in January, 4.8 in February, 4.9 in March and 6.0 in four games in April. That’s a very encouraging trend, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue.
Late in tight games, it can be temping to jack up contested 3’s, but Tatum and Jaylen Brown would be wise to trust their teammates and stay as patient as possible.
They’ll need to take their defense to another level.
The NBA regular season is a grind, and it’s commendable how consistent the Celtics have been defensively in the second half of the season.
The tricky part is that they’ve been getting straight As, but now the Nets or anyone else can come in after not studying and still dominate the final exam off pure brainpower alone. If the Nets, or anyone else, inevitably ratchet up the intensity defensively, the Celtics need to find another gear.
It won’t be enough to play the way they’ve played defensively. They have to be even better if they want to advance deep into the playoffs. More deflections, more steals, more defense leading to offense, more Marcus Smart hustle plays (if that’s even possible).
The Celtics are No. 1 in the NBA in DFG% (defended field goal percentage) at 43.4, and making life difficult for Irving, Durant, and potentially Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton down the road will be imperative.
Jaylen Brown needs to continue to be elite.
When Jaylen Brown is very good, the Celtics are very good. When he’s outstanding, the Celtics are almost unbeatable.
In his last ten games, he’s averaging 26.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5 assists while shooting 53.5 percent from the floor and 46.3 percent from 3. This has quietly been one of the best stretches of his career.
JAYLEN. BROWN. pic.twitter.com/3IYyq5iObf— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) April 10, 2022
There will be a game where Tatum is on fire. Brown needs to get him the rock and be ready to shoot when he’s doubled. There will be a game when Tatum is off. Brown needs to take over. He’s fully capable, and it’s up to him to continue to make it happen.
One other stat to note is his turnovers. Before the All-Star break, he averaged 2.9 a game, including 3.6 in October and 3.7 in December. After the break, that number has dipped to 2.3, including 2.2 in March. In the playoffs, where every possession is magnified, valuing the ball is imperative.
They need bench production.
Chances are that coach Ime Udoka will keep the rotation even tighter for the playoffs.
Derrick White and Grant Williams will get playing time, and Payton Pritchard should as well. There’s a chance Aaron Nesmith or even Sam Hauser could get some run if the Celtics need a spark.
It doesn’t matter where the production comes from, but it can’t be all on Smart, Brown, Tatum, Al Horford and Daniel Theis. Even if one guy off the bench gets hot, that’s often enough, assuming the starters are logging 35 to 40 minutes.
Pritchard is a prime candidate. In his last ten games, he’s averaging 10.6 points per game while shooting 46.8 percent from the floor and 45 percent from 3-point range. He never lost confidence in his shot, as bleak as it got, and how his faith has been rewarded.
Payton Pritchard shot almost exactly the same from 3 this season as he did last season, in terms of makes, attempts and percentage:— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) April 11, 2022
'21-22: 101-of-245 (41.2%)
'20-21: 102-of-248 (41.1%)
Pritchard, who heads into the playoffs with momentum on his side, provides a specific kind of lift that no one else on the team does. In wins, he’s shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 47.6 percent from distance. In losses, those numbers dip to 37.8 and 32. With teams keying in on Brown and Tatum, Pritchard will get uncontested looks. He has to keep knocking them down with regularity like has recently.
They need to trust what’s gotten them here.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Celtics have been one of the best teams in the NBA since late January. 25-25 through 50 games 26-6 after that? That just doesn’t happen. What a truly spectacular turnaround.
The Celtics end the season 51-31, the best record ever for a team that was under .500 halfway through the season (Boston was 20-21 at the halfway point). They surpass the 2018-19 Jazz and 2002-03 Lakers (both 50-32)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 11, 2022
(H/T @EliasSports) pic.twitter.com/rmrfo1eZXL
Something special is brewing, and now it’s time for the Celtics to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Though a likely path of Nets, Bucks, Heat/76ers is daunting, making The Finals is well within reach.
If they keep trending upward, then hit that next level at the right moment, there’s no reason they can’t make a deep run.