Series Preview: Celtics vs. Nets
After dismantling the Washington Wizards during their play-in matchup, 118-100, the Boston Celtics punched their ticket into the NBA Playoffs, where they will face their biggest challenge of the season
The stage is now set for the seventh-place C’s to take on the second-place Brooklyn Nets, whom many pundits believe are the favorite to win this year’s NBA championship. Though it’s a challenge that Boston’s locker room full of believers won’t back down from.
As head coach Brad Stevens noted Wednesday, “[The Nets] are a heck of a team, but we have some guys in here that have been through some big-time series before and have raised their level to meet the moment on several occasions.”
So, while the Celtics prepare to raise their level of play, it’s time to raise your level of knowledge. Here are some of the most noteworthy storylines heading into Game 1 Saturday night.
Toss Out Those Regular-Season Results
When searching for insight on a playoff series, it’s common practice to refer back to regular-season matchups. In this case, we’d advise you not to do so.
That’s because the lineups that are about to be featured will be mostly different from those that we saw during Brooklyn’s 3-0 regular-season sweep over the C’s.
Here’s a breakdown of key players who were missing from those three meetings:
12/25/20 – Brooklyn 123, Boston 95
Celtics were without: Evan Fournier (not yet acquired), Kemba Walker, Robert Williams
Nets were without: James Harden (not yet acquired), Blake Griffin (not yet acquired)
3/11/21 – Brooklyn 121, Boston 109
Celtics were without: Evan Fournier (not yet acquired)
Nets were without: Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin
4/23/21 – Brooklyn 109, Boston 104
Celtics were without: Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Robert Williams
Nets were without: James Harden
So the Celtics have yet to see Durant, Harden and Irving all on the floor together, while the Nets have yet to see a full-strength Celtics crew either. That takes some of the predictability out of this series, as we’re in for a fresh set of rotations.
Slowing Down Brooklyn’s Blazing Offense
What is predictable is that Brooklyn is probably going to be scoring quite a bit of points.
On paper, the Nets’ combination of Durant, Harden, Joe Harris, Irving, and DeAndre Jordan appears to be one of the greatest offensive lineups ever assembled. And on the court, they have 100 percent backed it up.
According to Statmuse, Brooklyn posted the highest offensive rating in NBA history this season, averaging 118.3 points per 100 possessions. It also logged the highest effective field-goal percentage in league history with a clip of 57.5 percent, surpassing Golden State’s mark of 56.9 percent set in 2017-18.
Brooklyn can thank Irving for helping them secure such efficient marks after he logged just the ninth 50/40/90 season in NBA history, all while averaging 26.9 points per game. Irving also happened to have his most success against Boston, as he scored 92 points across their three matchups.
This is where missing Jaylen Brown hurts, as the Celtics will have to account for Irving, Durant, Harden, and the league leader in 3-point percentage in Harris, all while playing without one of their premier perimeter defenders.
That just means that the rest of Boston’s defense will need to be playing on a string at all times if it has any hope of slowing down Brooklyn’s offensive powerhouse.
Epic Battle in Store Between JT and KD
Brooklyn’s defense won’t have it easy either. Boston may not have as lethal of a combination as the Nets do, but it does have the most potent scorer in the Eastern Conference over the past two months in Jayson Tatum.
Since April 1, Jayson Tatum has led all East players in total points and ranks second in points per game behind conference scoring champion Bradley Beal. And that does not include Tatum’s 50-point outpour from Tuesday’s play-in game.
Tatum has also been the most clutch player in the NBA throughout the season, as he led the league in fourth-quarter scoring (both average and total points).
Now, we’ll get to see how he matches up against one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. Tatum (26.4 PPG this season) will be going toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant (26.9 PPG this season) throughout this series, which should make for some epic scoring battles.
Fournier and Walker Must Be Elite, Too
With Jaylen Brown out, Jayson Tatum will obviously have to carry a heavy scoring load during this series. But he won’t be able to do it alone.
The Celtics will not have a chance to succeed unless both Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker are on their A-game in every single matchup. Fortunately for the Celtics, that duo has been doing just that on a nightly basis of late.
After a rocky start, which included two-and-a-half weeks in the league’s Health and Safety Protocols, Fournier has developed into one of Boston’s most consistent and efficient scorers. He scored at least 15 points in each of the last seven regular-season games, during which he averaged 19.9 points per game while shooting 54.6 percent shooting from the field, including 56.9 percent from 3-point range.
Walker, meanwhile, has joined Tatum as one of the hottest scorers in the East over the past month. Since April 17, the veteran point guard has averaged 28.1 PPG, which ranks third in the conference behind Bradley Beal (32.4 PPG) and Tatum (29.4 PPG) over that span.
If both Fournier and Walker can maintain their recent scoring burst, then Tatum will feel much less of a burden on his shoulders as the Celtics try to match Brooklyn’s explosive offense.
Robert Williams’ Health is X-Factor
Speaking of explosive, the No. 1 question surrounding this entire series is the health status of Robert Williams.
Boston’s high-flying center has been dealing with a nagging turf toe injury, which has caused him to depart from multiple games of late. He most recently aggravated the toe during Boston’s play-in game and has not been able to practice since.
Williams’ presence for the Celtics is vital for a plethora of reasons. For one, he is by far their top scoring threat at the rim, and he’s also their interior defensive anchor. Aside from that, he has simply been a crucial part of Boston’s success; he leads the team in player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, and win shares per 48 minutes.
His availability will be critical, and we should have a further update on his Game 1 status Saturday.