First-Round Rematch has Different Vibe for Celtics, Nets

BOSTON – Last May, the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets knocked the seventh-seeded Boston Celtics out of the first round of the Playoffs with relative ease, as Brooklyn's superstar trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving took care of a banged-up, Jaylen Brown-less Boston squad in five games.

Eleven months later, the two teams find themselves on a similar stage: facing off as first-round opponents in the 2-7 portion of the Eastern Conference bracket. Only this time around, there are several significant differences as the teams prepare for a rematch that is expected to be far more competitive than the last.

The most obvious difference is that the roles are reversed. Last season, Boston had to fight its way into the playoffs via the play-in tournament, which didn’t give them as much downtime to prepare for a grueling matchup against a star-laden Nets team that was widely expected to make it all the way to the finals.

This time, it was Brooklyn that squeaked into seventh seed via the play-in tourney after outlasting the Cleveland Cavaliers in a 115-108 win Tuesday night to set up a matchup against the hottest team in the league.

Last year’s edition featured Brooklyn’s league-leading offense against Boston’s No. 13 defense. This year features the Nets’ 10th-ranked offense against the Celtics’ top-ranked defense, which is just about as fresh as could be after having extra time off to prepare.

The Celtics were also dealing with all sorts of health issues last year, as Brown had been ruled out for the season after undergoing wrist surgery, Kemba Walker was dealing with a nagging knee injury, and Rob Williams was trying to push through searing pain caused by turf toe. In this instance, Williams is the only injured Celtics player, as he’s working his way back from a partial left knee meniscectomy and could return by the end of the month.

“That's why not being in the play-in is crucial going into the postseason,” said Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, who was on the opposite sideline as one of Steve Nash’s assistants for the previous series. “Get your full health back, get time to prepare and work on some things and implement a few new things. Everybody feels good other than Rob, and we'll be full and ready to go [for Game 1] Sunday."

Feeling better physically has led to the Celtics also feeling better mentally. Jayson Tatum, in particular, is feeling less of a burden on his shoulders after having to carry the team last spring while he averaging 30.6 points per game despite the 4-1 series defeat.

“Last year, we was banged up,” Tatum said. “All those guys was healthy over there. It was just different. I think this year we’ve had a better season, we’ve got everybody but Rob, and just much more full strength than last year. I guess we feel a lot better about ourselves than we did last playoffs.”

It also helps Boston’s confidence knowing how much better they matched up against Brooklyn during the regular season, winning three out of four in 2021-22 compared to losing all three matchups in 2020-21. It’s worth noting that the one loss from this season was all the way back in November when the C's were going through some early growing pains. The three wins have all occurred since the start of February, which is around the time when the C’s started to turn their season around.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn started strong, but dealt with inconsistency issues during the second half of the season. Yet, the Celtics are aware that players like Durant and Irving step up their game in the postseason, which they expect to happen over the next couple of weeks. Even though they won’t have Harden to deal with, there is still the tremendous task of slowing down two of the best isolation scorers in league history.

“We have our high-level defenders, they got elite scorers, and so that’ll be the challenge,” said Udoka.

While it may not be as daunting of a challenge as it was last year, Boston knows that this is shaping up to be not your typical 2-7 matchup. The increased level of competition is all the more reason to get hyped up for the upcoming battles.

“Everyone knows the talent that they have, and it is not a traditional seven-seed team,” said Tatum. “They had some ups and downs this year but for the most part, got their full team. They're really good, well-coached. They got some great players, obviously. I'm just looking forward to it. It's going to be fun and very exciting. We’re ready for it.”

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