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First round x-factors: what to watch for as the Celtics take on the Nets

A look at what the Celtics will have to do in order to thwart an upset bid by the Nets.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s almost as though it was meant to be, isn’t it? The Boston Celtics will, indeed, take on the Brooklyn Nets with the series tipping off on Sunday at 3:30 ET in Boston, and with no shortage of storylines worth considering. There’s Jayson Tatum vs. Kevin Durant; Kyrie Irving vs. Boston; underdogs vs. ... wait, who even is the underdog in this series? (You’re kidding yourself if you say it’s the Celtics, but there’s plenty of chatter already pointing toward that being a reality.)

But what, specifically, will it take for the Celtics to avoid a Nets upset, seeing as that’s what it would be if the Nets — despite their slight advantage in the superstar department — somehow made it out of this series? There’s plenty to unpack in that regard; let’s look at a few of the big ones.

Utah Jazz v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Derrick White finding his stroke (or any stroke, for that matter)

The game plan for the Nets is bound to be simple: make life on the offensive end a living hell for anyone whose name begins with the letters J-A-Y. And while Jaylen Brown did his fair share of scoring against the Nets this season — 18.5 points per game in four matchups — it’s Tatum who will garner the most defensive attention. He was the only Celtic to average 20-plus per game against the Nets, scoring 29.5 on average; you might recall his season-high 54-point performance that came against Brooklyn back in March. Needless to say, Tatum will be the focus.

But aside from the Jays — and Marcus Smart, who scored 17.8 per game in the team’s four meetings this season — no other Celtic scored more than 11.3 points against the Nets. To make matters worse, the one who did happens to have torn his meniscus in the last month. So, it’s going to be on everyone to chip in when the going gets tough for Tatum and Brown in particular.

Derrick White, for one, has to turn it on.

Since joining the Celtics at this season’s trade deadline, White has struggled to get going offensively. He’s scoring just 11 points per on appalling 40-30-85 shooting splits since arriving in Boston (the 85 percent on free throws is fine; it’s the other numbers that are cause for concern). More or less, he’s been a non-factor when the Celtics have the ball. In the playoffs, that won’t fly.

White doesn’t have to score in bunches — despite the amount of attention that is bound to be on Tatum and Brown, they’ll get theirs, and Marcus Smart will get plenty of work, too. The Nets don’t have the defenders to bring the Celtics' offense to a halt. But White being a liability doesn’t help Boston’s formula for long-term success in the least.

On defense, he’s an anchor. The postseason is when your game has to be rounded out in full.

Targeting Andre Drummond

Back in March when the Nets visited Boston — the afternoon of Tatum’s 54-point outburst — the Celtics took full advantage of any time Brooklyn deployed center Andre Drummond in drop coverage. He was forced to monitor both the low man and the high post, but instead of hedging on defense, Drummond would over-commit, thus leading to an easy shot or lob from one Celtic to another. Rob Williams was free to feast; if he didn’t receive a lob, the Celtic with the ball in the midrange had a free scoring opportunity.

The Nets adjusted, but the damage was done. Ime Udoka had found a crack, and Boston had taken full advantage. If they can manage to deploy these schemes on a regular basis over the course of the first round, it should lead to free points. Sure, missing a roaming Timelord makes it a more difficult mission. But Daniel Theis is a capable lob-catcher; Al Horford, too, while Grant Williams can draw fouls and finish layups when necessary. Hell, deploying Jayson Tatum down low could work, though the Celtics would much rather have him operate as the ball handler.

It isn’t foolproof, but when executed to perfection — like Boston was able to do back in March — it’s something Brooklyn has proven incapable of stopping.

Limiting unforced errors, sloppy stretches

This is always crucial. Against a team as offensively prolific as the Nets, it’s a matter of life or death. Durant and Kyrie are a problem, obviously. But anyone on this Brooklyn team can get out and run. Bruce Brown can streak on a fastbreak; Drummond was chucking up deuces a few weeks ago as he trotted his way to a slam against the Heat.

Luckily, the Celtics were fine in terms of taking care of the ball this season — just 13.6 turnovers per game, 13th in the league — and they hovered around that average in each game against the Nets, recording 10, 11, 14 and 14 turnovers in those matchups. Brooklyn’s defense isn't all that threatening when it comes to forcing turnovers, nor to holding teams below 120 half the time.

Should Boston refrain from handing over free scoring opportunities, they’ll be able to walk away with four wins. If they start getting sloppy, concern could run rampant.

The collective ability to take away the high post and the ensuing dump down low

Following what was one of the better evenings of his entire career on the offensive end, Bruce Brown shoved both feet right into his mouth. Speaking about what Brooklyn will have to do to contend with its first-round opponent, Brown said, “now that they don’t have Robert Williams, they have less of a presence in the paint. We can attack Al Horford and (Daniel) Theis. Them not having Robert Williams is huge.”

His comments pissed off his teammate, Kevin Durant; I’d be willing to bet they’ve been blown up, printed out, and plastered all over the walls of the Celtics’ locker room, too. But despite the ill-advised nature of Brown’s postgame remarks, he was undoubtedly riding the high — or the “caffeine pride” — of having torched the Cavaliers all evening from the position he noted the Celtics would be unable to stop without Williams.

Brown did it all on Tuesday, posting an 18-9-8 line on eight-of-19 shooting. It was an effort as fertile as it sounds in terms of shot creation and creation for others, and much of his best moments came from the high post. He picked apart Cleveland’s porous, Jarrett Allen-less backline, dumping pass after pass down low to Drummond or Nic Claxton. After a while, it became repetitive, as much a failure in defensive adjustment as it was an epic performance from Brown.

When he’s routinely making plays like these, it can be quite difficult to stop him.

I hear you: “Bruce Brown? Difficult to stop? Of all the Nets to focus on?” But there’s a real scenario in which Boston wins by limiting any Net not named Durant or Irving from performing like Brown did — or like Drummond did thanks to Brown’s help — against the Cavs. Boston’s defense is far better than the Cavs’ is; really, it’s not much of a discussion. But Brooklyn is much more than a two-man team if you let them be. If they find and aggravate the cracks in Boston’s defense, they’ll take advantage and create some serious havoc.

If Boston can react accordingly, they can win the series outright, as favorites would.

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