The Brooklyn Nets may have qualified for the playoffs via the play-in tournament after a season of inconsistency, but they’re still a serious opponent with elite scoring talent at their disposal. Luckily, the Boston Celtics have developed an identity as the best defensive team in the NBA, and that will stand them in good stead for the trials that lay ahead.
Brooklyn vs. Boston is a series fit for the conference finals, yet we find ourselves gearing up for the contest in the opening round - just as we did last year. A lot has changed since that fateful gentleman’s sweep though, and now the Celtics are slight favorites heading into Game 1.
As you would expect, both teams will be coming into their games with hard drives full of data on their opponents. They will know every little detail about each other and have counters upon counters to draw upon as the series gets deeper. Here is a dive into three of the Nets’ strengths and weaknesses to look out for in the upcoming series.
Kevin Durant & Kyrie Irving
Ok, this one is a given. But, when you have Kevin Durant on your roster, you can never be counted out - such is the power of arguably the best player on planet Earth right now. Durant is more than a scorer. He’s also an incredibly gifted offensive initiator, especially when on the break. Similar to the Celtics and Jayson Tatum, the Nets lean on Durant’s gravity to create openings for others, relying on Durant to use his size to see the floor and quick decision-making (processing speed) to make the right reads.
With Kyrie Irving back in the fold as a full-time player, the Nets have an elite on-ball penetrator who will command the defense's attention, in turn allowing Durant to spring free when playing off-ball. You can’t send doubles at both of those guys, so the Celtics' defensive IQ is going to be tested, especially when Irving and Durant are sharing the court with floor spacers such as Seth Curry and Patty Mills.
As Gibson Piper pointed out in his recent X’s and O’s breakdown of this upcoming series, the Nets like to run side actions for Durant, with the aim of getting him curling or cutting towards the middle of the floor. Placing their superstar around the nail gives him the opportunity to work both sides of the court, and for Brooklyn to run off-ball screening plays to get cutters slashing towards the basket. Using Irving in those side actions with Durant will give the Nets some serious firepower when defending dribble handoffs or get actions.
Even when Durant is operating on the sides by himself, he’s still a scoring threat in a multitude of ways. Here’s Durant coming off a side-action DHO and flowing straight into a pull-up three.
And here he is again, this time curling off a side pin-down to get the ball on the elbow, allowing him to make a read while the defense is scrambling to add pressure.
Of course, giving Durant or Irving room on the wings to lift or sink is always going to be a recipe for disaster, both are exceptional shooters and can hurt you off the catch or dribble. Boston will need to have their wits about them when defending these actions, specifically without giving up too much room on the weakside while still pressuring Durant and limiting his effectiveness.
Bruce Brown as the roll man
Bruce Brown may have shown too much bravado in his recent press conference, and provided the Celtics defense with additional fuel to their already scolding hot fire. But, last year, the Nets found a ton of success in using Brown as the roll-man in pick-and-roll situations.
One of the best ways to attack a switching defense is to slip the screen before a switch is made. By doing so, you’re creating a pocket of space to receive the pass or pressure the rim and force the defense to send help. Brown isn’t a hulking big, but he’s agile and explosive with a good feel for when to pass or go strong towards the hoop.
As you can see here, Brown creates space for himself by slipping before making contact on the screen. The general rule of a switching defense is to “switch on contact” so by slipping out early, the defense is at a disadvantage because confusion can set in. A split second is all it takes for the offense to gain a scoring advantage, and Brown’s speed can punish any moments of indecision.
Of course, as a two-guard, Brown is also a reasonable facilitator and can hurt teams when operating as a short-roll threat.
Keeping Brown out of the pick-and-roll as the screener is going to be a challenge, but the Celtics have been reliable when defending inverted screening actions all season, so they should be able to adjust accordingly. After all, this is a vastly different Boston team to the one the Nets smoked last season.
Ok, you can either take this as an asset or a hindrance, but the Nets are a very experienced roster. They boast multiple NBA winners, along with numerous vets who have been around the league for a long time. Such a high level of veteran leadershipwill ensure they don’t get too high or too low as a game ebbs and flows, which can be incredibly valuable in high-pressure situations.
Boston, on the other hand, is a young yet fearless roster, but we’ve seen them get sucked into the pressure of a game - especially when decisions aren’t going their way. The Nets will try to play into that weakness, and will likely incorporate the dark arts into their game plan, there’s a reason their jersey colors match that of Slytherin after all.
So, while the Celtics are too young to know when they’re beaten, they’re a little wet behind the ears outside of their top three or four guys, and that could be a defining factor in the series should Brooklyn force a Game 7.
Kyrie Irving’s Defense
If you’re looking for a key to the series, it will likely be how easily the Celtics can hunt Irving on pick-and-rolls. We know from his time in Boston, that Irving is susceptible when forced into being a point-of-attack defender, and that gives the Celtics a go-to option when they’re looking to get their offense flowing and in a groove.
Irving doesn’t boast the size, nor the strength, to knock guys off their line when they’re driving to the hoop and often finds himself beaten off the dribble when navigating screens. Of course, Brooklyn will hope that Andre Drummond’s presence around the rim will be a saving grace when Irving is put into a blender.
Not every pick-and-roll possession will end with a rim attempt though, which then removes the necessity of Drummond and further exposes Irving’s limitations as an on-ball defender. Take the above play for example. Look at the lack of communication across the board, and how easily Irving gets lost on the possession.
The Celtics are a pick-and-roll heavy team, utilizing “wide” sets early to force perimeter switches and get the defense in rotation.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Nets are giving up 8.1 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the floor, while their offense is marginally worse, with a -0.4 point drop. It’s those non-Durant minutes that are going to be a swing factor for the Celtics. If they can swarm the Nets' defense and build a commanding foundation, Brooklyn will be fighting off the back foot once Durant returns the floor.
Teams are also shooting 4.5% better across the board when Durant isn’t on the floor, which is emboldening for rosters when chasing the game.
It’s the playoffs, so Durant will spend most of his time on the court, but he can’t play every minute of every series, and those fleeting moments where humanity sets in, are when the Celtics can begin to chip away at Brooklyn’s souls.
Defending the mid-range
When looking at Instat’s tracking data, Brooklyn’s susceptibility in the mid-range is laid bare. Throughout the season, teams are scoring almost 40% of their mid-range shots against the Nets’ drop defense, and in the playoffs, mid-range scoring becomes far more accessible as teams hunker down on the perimeter and around the rim.
Derrick White, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are all straight-up weapons in the mid-range area and will look to get in behind Brooklyn’s perimeter defense whenever possible, with elbow sets and Iverson cuts the likely go-to play calls to make that happen.
Nicolas Claxton and Drummond are Brooklyn’s primary big-man rotation, and while both are high-level rim protectors on the defensive end of the floor, neither of them have the versatility to be considered switchable bigs capable of consistently switching out to the perimeter. As such, we’re going to see the Nets run a ton of drop coverage, and that’s where the mid-range advantage is going to come into play.
The Celtics aren’t the most fearsome team in the mid-range area, but that’s predominantly due to the team focusing on their rim pressure and perimeter game. Boston has the players to attack any space left by a deep drop coverage and should find consistent opportunities to light Brooklyn up throughout the game.
The Nets are one of the best teams in the NBA from a talent standpoint, and the strengths and weaknesses listed above are only a few examples of how they can hurt, or be hurt, during their upcoming series against the Celtics. There are countless ways the upcoming games can go, but at least we can now look out for certain flaws and things to avoid.
I personally have the Celtics winning in seven, but would hope they can take care of business in six, because in a do-or-die game, I want no part of a Kevin Durant-led Brooklyn team - even if Tatum is rapidly gaining ground in terms of skill and development.