The Celtics and Nets meet in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year. However, things have changed considerably since that series that the Nets won 4-1 last season. Last year, the Celtics came in as the 7th seed from the play-in tournament and the Nets were the second seed. This year, their positions are reversed with the Celtics coming in as the 2nd seed and the Nets coming in as the 7th seed by virtue of winning their play-in game. These two teams have met 3 times in the playoffs. Brooklyn has won all 3 times: 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, 2003 Eastern Conference Semifinals, and last season in the first round.
The Celtics won the season series 3-1 over the Nets. The Nets won the first game 123-104 over the Celtics in Boston on 11/24. The Nets were without Brown, Irving and Claxton while the Celtics were without Richardson and Rob Williams. The Celtics beat the Nets 126-91 in Brooklyn on 2/8. The Celtics were at full strength while the Nets were missing Durant, Irving, and Aldridge. The Celtics won the 3rd game 129-106 at Brooklyn on 2/24. Again, the Celtics were at full strength while the Nets were without Durant, Irving and Dragic.
The 4th, and final, game of the season on 3/6 was the most recent game and is likely the most indicative of where these teams stand. In this game in Boston, both teams were at full strength. The Celtics won the game 126-120 after going back and forth with the Nets during the game. The Nets led 90-81, with just over a minute left in the quarter but the Celtics came back to take the lead with the first basket of the fourth. Jayson Tatum scored 54 points and Jaylen Brown had 21. Kevin Durant had 37 points while Kyrie Irving had 19.
Along with the reversal of seeding positions, there are a number of other changes from that first round series last season. For one thing, Celtics head coach Ime Udoka was an assistant coach for the Nets last years and he is calling the shots in Boston this season. Jaylen Brown was out and the Celtics started Romeo Langford, Evan Fournier and Tristan Thompson with Aaron Nesmith and Jabari Parker getting key minutes off the bench. The Nets had James Harden as a third star and also had Joe Harris, who led the league in 3 point percentage.
The Nets aren’t the typical 7th seed. They played much of the season without one or both of their stars. They traded a disruptive James Harden for Ben Simmons, who has yet to take the court for them. Kevin Durant missed 27 games while Kyrie Irving played in just 29 games. The Nets were 33-19 with Durant in the lineup and 11-6 with both players healthy and playing.
After a slow start to the season, the Celtics are roaring into the playoffs this season where last season, they limped into the playoffs and were over-matched by the star studded Nets. Over the last 15 games, The Celtics have the best net rating, #1 defensive rating and #1 offensive rating. Over those same 15 games, the Nets have the 4th net rating, #9 defensive rating and #4 offensive rating. This won’t be an easy series for either team but if they Celtics play up to their potential and play the way they have over the last couple of months, even without Robert Williams, they should be able to win the series.
The Celtics have just Robert Williams III on the injury list as he continues to rehab from his meniscus injury. Several reports have said that they expect him to return at some time during this series. For the Nets, Joe Harris, who has missed most of the season remains out for this game. He is not expected to return until next season. Also on the injury list for them is Ben Simmons, who has not played a game this season after holding out for the Sixers and sitting out with a back injury for the Nets. He is expected to make his season debut with the Nets at some time during this series.
Probable Celtics Starters
PG: Marcus Smart
SG: Jaylen Brown
SF: Jayson Tatum
PF: Al Horford
C: Daniel Theis
Robert Williams (knee) out
Probable Nets Starters
PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: Seth Curry
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Bruce Brown
C: Andre Drummond
Joe Harris (ankle) out
Ben Simmons (back) out
Jayson Tatum vs Kevin Durant
Durant is one of the best offensive players in the league and has been for years. He averaged 29.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game this season. He shot 51.8% from the field and 38.3% from beyond the arc. Jayson Tatum is coming into his own this season as a star and the Celtics will need him to continue to play as a star in this game. Tatum and Durant have had 12 head to head meetings. In those games, Durant averaged 28.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists while Tatum averaged 24.6 points. 5.8 rebounds, and 2.9 assists. Tatum will need to play at a high level on both ends of the court for the Celtics to win this series.
Marcus Smart vs Kyrie Irving
Irving has played in just 29 games for the Nets this season but when he has been available, he has played at a very high level. He is averaging 27.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game. He is shooting 46.9% from the field and 42.8% from beyond the arc. Marcus Smart is one of the best defenders in the league and he needs to play his best defense in this series in order to slow down the Nets’ high powered offense.
Jaylen Brown vs Seth Curry
Seth Curry came to the Nets from Philly in the James Harden trade. He gives them a third scorer without the baggage that Harden brought. He is averaging 15.0 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game. He is shooting 49.3% from the field and 46.8% from beyond the arc. Jaylen Brown missed last year’s playoff and has been so excited for this series that he has been losing sleep. Hopefully he can calm down and be the second star that the Celtics need on both ends of the court.
Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense will always be the biggest key to winning, especially in the playoffs. The Celtics have to continue to make defense their priority and their identity in order to win in the playoffs. They were 1st in the league in the regular season with a defensive rating of 106.2. The Nets were 20th with a defensive rating of 112.3. However, they have tightened their defense up considerably heading into the playoffs and were 9th over their last 15 games. The Nets as a team shoot very well both inside and outside. The Celtics likely won’t out-shoot the Nets and so they must play tough team defense if they hope to win.
Rebound - In order to score, the Celtics need the ball and to get the ball, they will need to crash the boards as a team. The Celtics average 46.1 rebounds per game (5th) while the Nets average 44.4 rebounds per game (13th). Much of rebounding is effort and when the Celtics put out extra effort on the boards, it usually carries over into the rest of their game. The Celtics must come into the game determined to out-work the Nets and to hustle for every rebound.
Be Aggressive - The Celtics have to play with effort and intensity for the entire game with no let up. They need to start strong and play hard throughout the game. They have to be aggressive when they go to the basket, when they go after rebounds, when they defend, and when they go after loose balls. They have to be the team that plays harder and that wants the game more. They have to strike first and continue to be the team that is more aggressive until the final buzzer.
Play Team Ball and Communicate - The Celtics need to continue to move the ball and move without the ball and play as a team. The Nets have an iso heavy offense featuring Durant and Irving. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can’t get caught up in that and need to continue to look for the open man and keep the Celtics offense moving as it has over the last half of the season. They need to communicate on defense and share the ball on offense.
Bench Contributions - The focus will be on the stars for both teams but they will need to get contributions from their role players to win. Grant Williams, Derrick White, Payton Pritchard will need to play well for the Celtics, especially if one of the Jay’s struggles. Against the Hawks, Durant had 55 points and Irving had 31 points and yet, the Nets lost that game. Against the Grizzlies, Durant had 35 points and Irving had 43 points and the Nets lost that game by double digits. The Celtics need contributions from their role players and bench and they need to play defense to limit the contributions of the Nets role players.
Rest vs Rust - The Celtics have been off for 7 days and while that is good for healing and resting the players, who should be well rested and ready to go, it can also mean that players are a little rusty coming in. The Nets had to play in the Play-in game and so have just had a 4 day rest. Hopefully the Celtics don’t forget what it takes to win over the week long break between games and come out strong on both ends of the court.
Home Game - The Nets are a very good road team. They are tied for 2nd most road wins this season with a 24-17 record away from Barclays Center. Their 116.2 road offensive rating was 3rd highest all time. The Celtics have played well at home with a 28-13 record at the TD Garden. They need to feed off the energy of the crowd and hopefully, the Nets will be distracted by travel and the very hostile crowd.
Celtics Pride - Kyrie Irving disrespected the Celtics by quitting on the team when he planned to sign with the Nets after saying that he planned to return to the Celtics. Then he came back to the TD Garden and went out of his way to stomp on Lucky at center court last season. Bruce Brown also dissed the Celtics bigs by saying that they could easily attack Horford and Theis with Timelord out. The Celtics need to remember all of these things and stomp on the Nets this time. This would be a great time to avenge that first round loss last season.
Officiating - The officiating is always an x-factor. Some referees call the game tight and others let them play. Some favor the home team and others call it evenly. Some refs just seem to have an agenda that doesn’t fit the events on the court. The Celtics have to play through whatever calls go against them and not allow bad calls or no calls to take away their focus on the game.
According to our friends at DraftKings, the Celtics are a four-point favorite heading into Game 1 hosting the Nets. Boston is also a -130 to win the series, but ironically, Brooklyn is a +350 to represent the East in The Finals with Boston trailing third in the conference at +400.
The first game of a seven-game series can often be a feel out game for both teams, but there’s a ton of history here. Not only did the teams face each other in last year’s gentlemen’s sweep, but Udoka was an assistant on Steve Nash’s bench at the time. He’ll not only have the inside track on what Brooklyn likes to do with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but he’ll also have an idea how the Nets want to defend Jayson Tatum.
Expect the Celtics to stick to their guns with their switching defense and not do too much out of the ordinary in the first game of the first round. They saw just how much the Nets were able to cut up the Cavaliers’ defense whenever Cleveland tried to double team KD and Kyrie to force the ball out of their hands. Brooklyn feasted on 4-on-3 scenarios with Bruce Brown in the short roll hitting Nic Claxton and Andre Drummond for easy looks at the rim. Boston will gamble that even if Brooklyn’s two future of Hall of Famers both go of for 30+ points each against the Celtics’ tall and athletic defenders, they’ll limit the supporting cast enough to secure a win and series lead.
All odds are accurate at the time and date of publishing.
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