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Bruce Brown’s comments strike a nerve at first Celtics playoff practice

Ime Udoka defended Al Horford and Daniel Theis after Bruce Brown kicked off the Celtics and Nets’ first round series by targeting them as vulnerabilities for Boston.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics defended the Nets masterfully in their last victory, 126-120, over Brooklyn in March. The final numbers on paper appeared as explosive as you’d expect from a high-powered offensive unit led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Jayson Tatum’s 54-point classic keyed the win, but nearly as important was Boston’s stretches of strong defensive play that kept the Nets off-balance through key sequences, particularly the third quarter.

Bruce Brown found himself with the ball throughout the frame, scoring 10 points in that frame as Robert Williams III played away from him to impact the interior in Ime Udoka’s defensive scheme. Despite him being able to do some damage, his touches almost felt like a welcome distraction to keep the ball out of Durant and Irving’s hands for most of that stretch. Then, to open the fourth quarter, Brown missed a key point-blank layup.

Brown, a Boston native, now feels like an x-factor entering the Celtics and Nets’ highly-anticipated first round series that feels more like a conference finals. Following his 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in Brooklyn’s Tuesday play-in win over the Cavaliers that clinched the No. 7 seed for the Nets, called out Al Horford and Daniel Theis by name as vulnerabilities in Williams III’s absence. Durant immediately tried to walk back the diss, but by Wednesday afternoon, it had already reached Celtics practice.

“We still have two high-level defenders back there,” Ime Udoka said. “Big guys with Daniel and Al, and we have layers to our defense. So, it’s not like we’re getting blown by and Rob is protecting. We still have Marcus, Jaylen, Jayson and everybody else in-between. We know how (Brown) scores and how he attacks in a lot of the drop situations, but we can take that away by how we guard. They think it’s attack time because Rob is out. Obviously, we’ve played in quite a few games without him now and have done good enough beating some good teams.”

The Celtics did stumble immediately following Williams’ injury with stagnant effort late in the fourth quarter on the way to a loss against the Heat. Since turning to Theis and Horford in the starting lineup though, they’ve scored dominant victories reminiscent of wins with Williams. Boston beat the Bulls by 23 points, the Wizards by 42 and nearly topped the Raptors and Bucks with multiple other starters missing against full opposing efforts. Horford has averaged 12.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists with 1.0 steal and 1.0 block per game on 68.4% shooting in his past five games. Theis added 12.8 PPG and 6.0 RPG in five starts.

While it’s not clear Boston is in the clear yet from Williams’ absence, Udoka again asserted the team’s expectation that he won’t return in the series. The outright disrespect for the team’s two veteran centers clearly struck a nerve with the coach, as did the notion that the Celtics could be underdogs in the series as the No. 2 seed. Boston opened as a slight underdog in Vegas last night, before flipping to favorites this afternoon.

“I wouldn’t say we have an underdog mentality going into it,” Udoka said. “We know who we are and who we’ve been over the last few months, the overall number one team in a lot of categories offensively and defensively. So the focus toward the end of the season was health and worrying about ourselves more than the opponent, and that’s how we approached it. So while teams were doing what they were doing, we were continuing to play well, and rest guys when we can, but at the same time get a run in like we did against Memphis. We weren’t running from anybody, we were worried ourselves the whole time and to each its own the way certain teams attack it. In order to win, you have to win against really good teams at some point.”

Udoka carries the most familiarity from both sides of the matchup, serving as Brooklyn’s assistant coach through the team’s 4-1 win over Boston last postseason. Much has changed, from the return of Horford to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s continued ascension, the emergence of Boston’s dominant defensive unit and the arrival of Derrick White. Brooklyn suffered the loss of James Harden at the trade deadline, padding its depth with Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and the yet-to-play Ben Simmons.

Varying reports have pointed toward Simmons’ involvement in the series and lack thereof, possibly as early as Game 1 on Sunday at 3:30 EST. The Celtics clearly spent little time anticipating how he fits into the picture though, instead digging into opposing personnel that’ll clearly be ready for tip-off.

Udoka pointed toward his familiarity with Simmons from his season coaching him in Philadelphia, and didn’t expect anything different in terms of his own game. There are few players on the opposing side he hasn’t coached. White, meanwhile, emphasized the complete unpredictability of when Simmons will return, and the lack of film likely to leave the Celtics responding to what they see rather than anticipating.

“We know what he is,” Udoka said.

Tatum addressed his own aspirations for the series to conclude practice, against an untraditional seventh seed, steering clear of both the notion he has something to prove or making it a one-on-one battle with an influence and idol in Durant. Both, ironically, will probably need to impact the game by getting the ball out of double teams and traps to raise up their teammates given the attention they’ll draw.

It also wouldn’t be Celtics-Nets without the everlasting storyline of Irving’s departure from Boston and the Celtics’ fans distaste for him. Tatum again credited the veteran’s influence on him feeling out the first two years of his career, and continues to speak with his former teammate. He mentioned one conversation they had recently, but left the contents undisclosed.

“There’s some things, he told me, he wished he would’ve done differently,” Tatum said. “But I think that’s just part of life. Nobody’s perfect, and you’ve just got to move on from it as you get older.”