The Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets will meet in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs in an Eastern Conference series. This is a rematch of last year’s first round series, but the Celtics are coming in far more prepared this time around. The series schedule is as follows:
· Game 1 – Sunday 4/17 at Boston – 3:30 PM ET - ABC
· Game 2 – Wednesday 4/20 at Boston – 7:00 PM ET - TNT
· Game 3 – Saturday 4/23 at Brooklyn – TBD - ESPN
· Game 4 – Monday 4/25 at Brooklyn – TBD - TBD
· Game 5* – Wednesday 4/27 at Boston – TBD - *if necessary
· Game 6* – Friday 4/29 at Brooklyn – TBD - *if necessary
· Game 7* – Sunday 5/1 at Boston – TBD - *if necessary
During the regular season the teams met four times, with Boston taking three of the four matchups:
· Brooklyn 123 – Boston 104
· Boston 126 – Brooklyn 91
· Boston 129 – Brooklyn 106
· Boston 126 – Brooklyn 120
There’s not a ton to be drawn from the regular season series, unfortunately. In the first game, Brooklyn got a good performance from James Harden, but neither Al Horford nor Kyrie Irving played. Harden is now long gone, and Horford and Irving will be major players.
The second game featured a healthy Celtics against a decidedly not-healthy Nets. If you can believe it, this game wasn’t even as close as the final 35-point margin indicates.
The third game played out similarly to the second game. Boston was again healthy, while Brooklyn was not. Again, the result was a blowout.
The fourth matchup looks the most similar to what we might see in the playoffs. In that game, Jayson Tatum outdueled Kevin Durant by scoring 54 points to Durant’s 37. Beyond the two stars, Boston got good performances from just about everyone else. Kyrie Irving and Bruce Brown did their thing for Brooklyn, while the Nets also got 14 points off the bench from LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Celtics enter this series without Robert Williams. Boston has expressed optimism on Williams’ recovery from meniscus surgery. There’s even been reporting that the Celtics believe they’ll have Williams at some point during this series. Obviously, if Williams can both play and be himself, that would be huge for Boston. They’ve got good depth up front, but Williams raises this team’s ceiling considerably.
On the Nets side, their only real question is if Ben Simmons will play. While there has been reporting that Simmons is optimistic that he’ll make his Brooklyn debut during the first round, the team has publicly shot that down. Simmons only recently started ramping up his on-court work. He hasn’t done any full scrimmaging yet, which Steve Nash has said is a must before Simmons plays.
Overall, it’s hard to imagine Simmons, after being out for the entire season, being thrown into the middle of a playoff series. That could be a disastrous way to start what Brooklyn hopes is a long-term partnership. He’s not exactly a plug-and-play player, given his unique skillset.
The only other player officially out is the Nets Joe Harris, who is out for the season following ankle surgery.
Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown vs Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry
The regular season matchups are only semi-instructive here. Kyrie Irving only played once against Boston, while Seth Curry got five games vs the Celtics due to the trade that sent him from Philadelphia to Brooklyn. On the Boston side, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown appeared in all four games against the Nets.
Smart has played some his best basketball this season against Brooklyn. He shot 50% from the floor, as well as 50% from behind the arc, in averaging 17.8 points. He also put up 6.5 assists per game, against just 2.5 turnovers. And, as always, Smart played some pretty good defense against various Nets.
Brown was also solid, if a bit understated to his season as a whole. He’s asked to carry a heavy defensive burden against Brooklyn, as Brown is the primary defender on Kevin Durant. So, it’s likely Brown backs off a touch on offense. He was still productive, but didn’t hit threes at his normal rate.
Curry had some big shooting games against the Celtics, both with the 76ers and the Nets. Keeping track of him will be a major focus for Boston.
Look for Smart to start possessions guarding Irving. How much Boston switches that matchup will be big, as Smart is the best equipped of the Celtics five starters to guard Irving. Because Brown generally guards Durant, Jayson Tatum will likely open possessions on Seth Curry. That’s a cross-match that dictates Tatum has to get back on defense and get matched up properly.
When the ball flips to the other end, that’s where Boston has a massive advantage. Neither Irving nor Curry is a good defender. Both can be passable for stretches, but these are two guys the Celtics will go at.
Look for Smart to get down inside and do some work out of the post against either Irving or Curry. Boston has gotten a lot of offense out of those sets, as the bigs pull their opposite numbers out to the arc.
Similarly, Brown will get his on straight post-ups, as well as drives and cuts. He’s too big, too strong and too athletic for either Irving or Curry to handle. And there’s no easy switch, as that leaves the Nets disadvantaged somewhere else.
Boston will probably see Durant playing as somewhat of a roamer, likely off Daniel Theis. He’ll be the designated helper when the Celtics are going at Irving or Curry. Smart and Brown getting the ball moving in those situations, without forcing their own shots, will be a major key to this series.
Advantage: Boston. This is almost the inverse of last season. Brooklyn has to score and score a lot to keep pace in this backcourt matchup, as well as the series as a whole. The challenge for the Nets is that the Celtics do have some chance of slowing them down, because their guys are elite defenders. That doesn’t seem realistic on the other end. That’s why this advantage tilts towards Boston, even if Irving is probably going to have at least a couple of really big games in the series.
Jayson Tatum and Al Horford vs Kevin Durant and Bruce Brown
Jayson Tatum’s emergence as an all-around superstar puts him near the level of Kevin Durant. Durant remains the NBA’s most-lethal scorer. There’s nothing he can’t do. And if you send help, Durant is perfectly capable of finding cutters and shooters.
But here’s the thing…Tatum is just a tick behind Durant in those same ways. And that tick is getting smaller and smaller by the day.
In addition, Tatum is a better defender than Durant, simply because he brings that effort more often. In part, that’s because Tatum doesn’t have to carry the offensive burden Durant does. And with other elite defenders around him, Tatum is an expert at working in Boston’s defensive system.
Bruce Brown will be the primary defender against Tatum, but the Celtics will seek out mismatches via screening for Tatum when they can. Durant will probably guard Al Horford and Daniel Theis, but will float around quite a bit.
Simply put: Tatum vs Durant is going to be a show. Even if they’ll probably only occasionally guard each other, all eyes will be on them.
Where the Celtics have to “win” is with Al Horford outproducing Bruce Brown. Brown plays sort of like a mini-Horford for the Nets. He does a lot of work in and around the paint, and takes some threes. He’s also a good defender and a good passer.
The difference is that Horford is actually a big, while Brown masquerades as one. When Rob Williams was healthy, he “guarded” Brown, while Horford took on Andre Drummond. Look for that similar strategy to play out with Daniel Theis “guarding” Brown.
Why “guarding”? Boston is content to let Brown take threes. Yes, he hit 40% from deep this year, but it was on only 1.3 attempts per game. Brown is an improved shooter, but he still does his work mostly on the inside. When Brown drifts to the arc, look for Theis to put himself in situations to help. As Brown cuts and moves, either Theis or another Celtic will have to tag him to make sure he’s accounted for.
Advantage: Boston. Unlike last year, when Tatum was basically a one-man show, he’s got lots of help this year. Even if he doesn’t outplay or match Durant, Tatum won’t be far off. It’s Horford outproducing Brown that gives the Celtics the advantage here. Like Kyrie Irving, Durant will have a few monster games in this series. But so will Tatum. And that’s huge compared to last year’s series.
Daniel Theis vs Andre Drummond
Everything has changed here from last year. Daniel Theis is back with Boston, while Andre Drummond has been terrific for Brooklyn since he was acquired at the trade deadline. Neither of these guys were a part of last season’s series, nor were their backups overly involved.
Theis doesn’t need to be Rob Williams. He just needs to be a credible replacement. Boston’s offense changes some with Theis in place of Williams. Theis is a threat around the rim, but not the “just get it in the vicinity” threat that Williams is. On the flip side, Theis has to be guarded at the arc. He’s at 35.7% on threes in 21 games with Boston.
Defensively, Theis is solid, but he’s not Williams. Williams is a game-changing defensive force. Theis is more ruggedly dependable. But that’s all the Celtics need him to be for now.
For all their offensive brilliance, the Nets don’t put a ton of pressure on the rim. Drummond, Bruce Brown and backup center Nic Claxton are the only players who take a lot of shots at the basket. That should allow Theis to roam and help a bit, without having the pressure to protect the basket too.
Drummond has played great for the Nets, but he’s still somewhat of an enigma. His defensive effort comes and goes. Offensively, he’s a catch-and-dunk guy. He remains a good in-area rebounder, but he’s not getting ones that don’t fall right to him. Al Horford’s main goal needs to be to keep Drummond off the offensive glass, which will allow Theis to do his thing as a helper.
Advantage: Even. This matchup is pretty close. Theis is a more versatile player, but he’s always Boston’s fifth option on offense. As long as he’s setting screens, finishing layups and making the occasional jumper, he’s done his job on offense. On defense, Theis will have a lot of the designated-helper responsibilities. He has to avoid getting silly fouls, even if the War on Theis is a real thing. For the Nets to have a chance at winning this series, Drummond needs to be a monster. He has to dominate inside to complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. That might happen for a game or two, but consistently good play has never been a hallmark of Drummond’s career.
Derrick White, Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard vs Patty Mills, Nic Claxton, Goran Dragic
Don’t expect either coach to go deeper than eight players when it matters. If Rob Williams or Ben Simmons ends up being available, they’ll jump into the rotation too, but for now, we’re treating them both as out.
So, it’s really a couple of backup guards and a backup big for both sides. The Nets have the experience, but the Celtics three main reserves have been playing lights-out for a couple of months now.
Derrick White is probably the single most important reserve in this series, aside from potentially Nic Claxton. White is going to play a lot, especially if Boston goes to some smaller lineups. He’s likely to be a part of the Celtics closing lineups. He’ll be tasked with guarding both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and White should be up to that task.
For the others, it comes down to defense and making shots. Grant Williams has to give Boston good defense behind Al Horford and Daniel Theis. And he has to make shots. On the other side, Nic Claxton has to be the bouncy menace he’s capable of being. He’s the most athletic big in this series with Rob Williams out. He has to use that to his advantage. Don’t be surprised if he ends up playing a good amount over Andre Drummond to give the Nets more rim protection.
Payton Pritchard, Patty Mills and Goran Dragic will all play if they can hit shots and not be massive targets on defense. This season, Pritchard has proven up to that task. He’s terrific shooter and a competitive defender. Boston does a good job scamming him out of mismatches in their switching scheme. And the Nets will almost always have a smaller guard or two on the floor, which gives Pritchard a spot to start possessions.
Mills had a great start to the season, but he looks really worn down. He hasn’t shot over 40% in a month since January, and that’s primarily what he offers the Nets. The extended series, with no back-to-backs could be big for him.
The same could be true of Goran Dragic. Dragic is still tricky and does a good job running the offense, but he’s really struggled to shoot it since joining the Nets. It’s a small sample size, but if Dragic isn’t making jumpers, he probably can’t be on the floor.
Advantage: Boston. This one seems pretty simple: The Celtics reserves bring a lot to the table while taking nothing off of it. The Nets reserves are capable of big offensive games, but Mills and Dragic are major targets on defense. In addition, any of the Boston backups can play with any of the starters. The Nets can’t run lineups with Dragic and Mills joining Kyrie Irving or Seth Curry and hope to be successful against the Celtics. Those groupings are simply too small. As long as shots are falling, Boston’s reserves will play a lot more defense and that gives them a fairly sizable advantage.
Ime Udoka vs Steve Nash
Steve Nash has a bit more experience, but Ime Udoka isn’t far enough behind for that to really matter. What does matter is that the team Ime Udoka knows best beyond Boston is Brooklyn. His time with the Nets as an assistant puts him in a situation where he knows a lot of their stuff and has a good sense of how to attack Brooklyn on both ends.
Nash’s best ability seems to be managing egos vs managing a series. Nash tends to rely too much on his veteran players, even if they aren’t necessarily coming through for him. Oddly though, he’ll throw players like Kessler Edwards in the mix, when they clearly seem overmatched.
Udoka has spent the entire year building and refining Boston’s schemes on defense and offense. The defense came along quicker and remains formidable even without Rob Williams. The offense is where things have really picked up. The Celtics are running more, moving the ball and executing at a very high level.
Advantage: Even. It’s impossible to give Udoka an advantage here, even if it’s tempting. Nash has at least been through a playoff run before. Udoka will have to learn a bit on the fly about adjusting game to game. Playoff series are about adjustments, then the adjustments to those adjustments. Udoka has been through it all in his first season, while Nash just led one of the more trying regular season campaigns a coach has seen. This one is going to come down to which coach trusts his stuff and his players the right amount. Too much or too little and everything could go sideways.
Celtics in six games.
This prediction is made with a healthy respect for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and with a pinch of trepidation around Rob Williams being out. If Williams were healthy, the pick would have been Celtics in five games. But the uncertainty of when, and if, Williams will play, gives the Nets a chance.
When they have both Durant and Irving, the Nets are a very good offensive team. On the other side, the Celtics are a very good offensive AND defensive team.
And that’s the difference.
Having watched them all year, including in several big games down the stretch and vs Cleveland in the Play-In Tournament, there’s no reason to believe Brooklyn will play enough defense to beat Boston four times in seven games.
Durant and Irving will probably win a couple of games almost by themselves. They’re that good. But while they are probably two of the three best players in this series (Durant, Tatum, Irving/Brown is a tossup), Boston may have the next four best players. Depth and defense lean heavily towards the Celtics.
It’s always hard to pick a team to close a series on the road. But playing in Brooklyn isn’t exactly like going into the lion’s den. If it gets to a Game 6, the Celtics will be fine. They’ve proven that that they embrace a challenge.
The playoffs are like a fight. Trust that Boston, from Ime Udoka straight through the 15th man, is ready, and more importantly, happy to strap the gloves on and go to work. That will and desire to exact some revenge will drive Boston into the second round.