We wanted to preview the first round of the playoffs with a series of roundtables with the staff. The first question posed to the group is What storyline are you most interested in for the Nets series?
Adam Spinella: While most of the attention will go to Kyrie Irving, the on-court prioritization of defensive gameplans from Ime Udoka is what I’m fascinated to watch. A “switch everything” lineup can leave the C’s exposed with a less-than-ideal defender against two of the greatest scorers in the world in Kevin Durant and Kyrie. With Robert Williams out and more minutes for Daniel Theis, that scheme leaves the C’s exposed in many lineups. I’m watching closely to see how Udoka toggles the strength of this team in their switching and the postseason urge to avoid negative mismatches. There are other ways around it — trapping Durant, for example — and those wrinkles could be a nice ace in the hole for the Celtics late-game.
Will Bjarnar: There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the paths both of these teams took to get to this point. For the Celtics, getting here — “here” being the two seed, being considered realistic title contenders, posing as a legitimate threat to any team in the NBA, etc. — was messy. It was chock-full of adversity and frustration; of genuine contemplation regarding whether or not the team’s presumed star duo could play together; of questions like, “wait, why’d we hire this guy?” But their turnaround, perhaps the most well-documented and celebrated triumph in recent memory for the Celtics, has rewritten the script on what is possible for this team. Because by all accounts, they weren’t supposed to be here.
The Nets, on the other hand, were supposed to be “here” — wherever “here” is for the idealized version of that team — from the jump. A core of superstars, a bright coach, a supporting cast full of scrappy swingman types. This iteration of the Brooklyn Nets always felt tailor-made for a championship run. And yet, they needed a play-in game to qualify for the postseason, a fate no one ever would’ve predicted a team led by a KD-Kyrie duo would see. They started at the top and found themselves fighting to stay clear of the bottom.
Now, the teams with opposite journeys will face off in the first round. Let the Gods of destiny have their fun with this one. I, for one, am excited to see how it all plays out.
Trevor Hass: How consistently do the Nets get production from a third source? If Seth Curry or Patty Mills is hitting 3’s, Bruce Brown or Goran Dragic is penetrating and facilitating or Andre Drummond or Nic Claxton is finishing at the rim as a legitimate option, they’re tough to stop. Or if that Ben Simmons guy does come back, will he be the missing piece? Either way, the Celtics have to exert so much energy trying to stop Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving that opportunities will be there for other Nets. Can they take advantage, or does the Celtics’ tremendous defense prevent that from happening?
Daniel Poarch: I am fascinated to see how the Nets plan to incorporate Ben Simmons, if indeed that happens. Simmons is a complicated player to tool a roster around (to say the least) even when completely healthy and game-ready, and the Nets reportedly believe they will be able to bring him back into the fold in the playoffs for his first game action since Philadelphia’s second round loss to Atlanta last postseason. Just how healthy is he, exactly? What are the best lineups they can build around him? Can any of their frontcourt players even coexist with him? Will he shoot? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, and I’m quite curious to find out.
Michael Pearce: The most interesting storyline, aside from the aforementioned Simmons mystery, is the “team ball” vs. “star ball” clash. Obviously, the Celtics have 2 stars of their own, but Kevin Durant is still the best player in the series, with Kyrie as the third best. So, the interesting storyline will be the Celtics vastly superior supporting cast, and how they can make up for the Nets having the bigger star duo. Because of the strength of the Celtics supporting cast, we’re looking at a thrilling series of two vastly differently constructed teams.
Keith Smith: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown vs. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Although that’s not really the direct matchup, it’s the Celtics stars against the Nets stars. I’m excited to see if Boston’s guys are ready. This is a wonderful challenge to see where they are at, not only now, but moving forward into the future.
Bobby Manning: The fourth quarter execution (Celtics are 7-8 in clutch situations in the new year, -6.9 net rating). Boston’s been winning blow outs for several months now, but the nature of the playoffs and Robert Williams’ injury project to lower their margins alongside the sheer scoring talent on the other side in Brooklyn. They’ve shot a grisly 40.9 eFG% in the clutch, and their 63.1 AST% in the new year falls to 55.3%. Their 126-120 win over the Nets featured the Celtics’ most inspiring clutch play all season. But we just haven’t seen enough of this group without Williams (despite some encouraging returns) or in crunch time. Have they turned a corner? That’s what I’m looking for, beyond any talk of individual status ascension among the series’ stars.
Mike Dynon: Is Jayson Tatum KD 2.0?
There may never be another Kevin Durant, the lanky, 6-foot-10 scoring machine feared by all. But Tatum seems to be KD’s most likely successor.
When Durant led Team USA to victory in last summer’s Olympics, Tatum was his wingman, making an impression on the world stage. In NBA competition, it was only last month that Tatum dropped 54 points on Durant and the Nets. And if voters cooperate, JT is positioned to snag the first-team All-NBA spot that’s had Durant’s name on it for years.
Tatum has the physique, the shooting touch, and the killer instinct to be the next Durant. To become the best, one must beat the best. No reason Tatum can’t start right now.