Even without Kevin Durant, this is going to be a good one. The Celtics visit Brooklyn with the teams separated by just two games in the Eastern Conference. After losing to Boston on December 4th, the Nets have won 14 of their last 15 games including a twelve-game winning streak. KD was obviously a big part of that stretch, but his void will be filled by a Brooklyn squad finally getting healthy. T.J. Warren is back and averaging 10 points per game on 55% shooting. Nic Claxton has been a revelation as one of the conference’s best defensive centers and paired with Ben Simmons (averaging nearly 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists per game), make up one of the stingiest front courts in the league. Kyrie Irving is having one of his best stretches in Brooklyn, averaging 28 points on 51%/42%/92% splits and he’s even made more dangerous surrounded by the sharpshooting of Seth Curry, Joe Harris, and Yuta Watanabe.
After a December slump, the Celtics have won 8 of 10 before heading out on this three-game roadie (with two in Charlotte after playing the Nets). Much of that has coincided with the return of Robert Williams. Boston has the fifth best defense in the league over their last ten games, allowing just 112.1 points per 100 possessions. The dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are averaging nearly 62 points combined on 50% shooting. There have certainly been hiccups since their hot start in October and November, but this is a team that’s finally cementing their identity on both sides of the ball. There will be narratives galore heading into the game — President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens’ reluctance to trade Brown et. al. for KD, Kyrie’s history with the Celtics, and the #1 seed in the East on the line — but ultimately, it’s a good regular season measuring stick for two of the hottest teams in the league.
In the night cap out west, Luka Doncic will be under the bright lights to face LeBron James (on four days rest) and the Lakers. Despite the loss of Anthony Davis, LA has stayed afloat at 7-6 and buoyed themselves into the play-in conversation in the Western Conference. LeBron James has proven to still be a top-10 player and with his team sniffing around a playoff spot, there’s pressure for the front office to make a move, but until then, they’ve got tough tests ahead, starting tonight against the visiting Mavericks. After a seven-game winning streak and some ridiculous displays of Luka magic, Dallas has dropped three of four in embarrassing fashion. They’ll be without three key members to their rotation (Josh Green, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Maxi Kleber with Dwight Powell questionable), so tonight’s matchup could easily dissolve into a mano a mano between LeBron and Luka. It’s Hollywood, right?
The Celtics are surprisingly 1.5-point favorites heading to Barclays Center. Those odds don’t seem to take into account second night of a back-to-back, the assumption that Al Horford won’t play, the questionable statuses of Marcus Smart and Robert Williams, and Jaylen Brown tweaking his hamstring in last night’s win over the Pelicans at TD Garden. Dallas are also road favorites at -3.
The topic du jour in Beantown these days is Robert Williams. His fingerprints have been all over the Celtics’ turnaround off late, particularly on the defensive end. He’s switching out to quicker perimeter players and protecting the rim with his 7’6 wingspan. He’s averaging 1.4 blocks per game as he starts to ramp up and hasn’t reached his average of 2.2 from last season, but we’ve seen games where he’s been extremely active in the rejection department. Against the Spurs less than a week ago, he swatted four shots with two steals.
Ironically, the Celtics and Nets are first and second in blocked shots against this season at 3.7 and 3.8 per game respectively. But we’re talking about Robert Williams vs. Kyrie Irving, arguably one of the craftiest guards around the rim. Here’s a fun prop for tonight’s marquee matchup: our friends at DraftKings have the over/under on Time Lord’s block total at 1.5 (-160/+130). With Al Horford out tonight, Williams should get his second start of the season after sitting last night and all the minutes he can handle at the 5. Maybe these are my green-tinted glasses talking, but I think he’ll get his hands on two shots tonight.