Series Preview: Celtics vs. Nets

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After climbing the Eastern Conference standings over the past three months and claiming second place, the Boston Celtics are set to face one of the toughest seventh-seed matchups in recent memory in the Brooklyn Nets.

It will be a reverse rematch of last year’s first-round series, through which the second-seeded Nets advanced with a 4-1 series win over the seventh-place Celtics. This time around, the Boston is expected to be far more competitive, as the Celtics put their league-leading defense to the test against Brooklyn’s explosive offense.

As the Atlantic Division foes get ready for battle, we’ve laid out some of the most noteworthy storylines and tidbits of information heading into the series to get you fans ready as well.

Don’t Put Much Stock into Regular-Season Results

The Celtics dominated the regular-season series against Brooklyn, winning three out of four and boasting a combined scoring margin of 45 points in their favor. The only win for the Nets was back in November before the Celtics turned their season around. They’ve faced off three times since the start of February, and Boston has owned those matchups with an average margin of victory of 21.3 points.

However, we’re going to be honest here in saying that the regular-season results were mostly meaningless because Brooklyn’s dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving did not play much of a role. Durant missed the two middle matchups, while Irving was absent for the first three.

The only game that held any weight was the most recent matchup on March 6, which saw both teams at full strength in a 126-120 victory for the hosting Celtics. If we’re judging by just that game, then we could be in for a treat, because that was one of the most thrilling contests of the regular season, as it showed how well-matched these two high-power offenses are.

Battle of the Superstars: JT vs. KD

The most recent matchup also provided an exhilarating preview for the key individual matchup in the series: Jayson Tatum versus Kevin Durant. Over the past few seasons, JT and KD have delivered some legendary head-to-head results, including on March 6 when Boston’s superstar wing outscored Brooklyn’s superstar wing, 54-37.

Early in their rivalry, Durant held the edge in the scoring department. But recently, Tatum has caught up. During their last five matchups, Tatum has outscored Durant 38.2 PPG to 32.6 PPG, which includes two separate 50-point outpours by the former.

When asked ahead of the series how to slow down Tatum, Durant had no clear answer: “He’s one of those players, you just gotta play hard, see what happens. He’s just so talented and skilled and efficient at what he does.”

Likewise, Tatum knows that it’s nearly impossible to stop Durant. He’ll just have to continue to do his best to try to match one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, blow for blow.

“Everybody knows who Kevin is and the things he's accomplished and what he brings to this game, but it's a team sport,” Tatum said Wednesday afternoon. “Obviously, he's the focal point of their team and you got to compete and game plan and things like that to make it tough for him. That's a tough task, but I’m looking forward to it. It's going to be fun.”

Two Top Iso Scorers vs. the No. 1 Iso Defense

The Nets have two of the most skilled isolation scorers in NBA history. Meanwhile, the Celtics have the top-ranked isolation defense in the league. Durant and Irving have their way with teams in one-on-one situations, but it shouldn’t be so easy against Boston’s abundance of versatile defenders.

“It’s a contrast of two things that two teams do extremely well,” said C’s head coach Ime Udoka.

When Udoka came to the Celtics, he implemented a switching defensive scheme, which proved to be the perfect type of strategy for their well-rounded group of defenders. They’re constantly helping, moving, and making teams uncomfortable on that end, which has hurt the opposition in iso situations.

However, Durant and Irving are two of the most fearless isolation scorers in the world. They can break down a defense and create points in just about any situation, whether they’re pulling up in a defender’s face or scoring off the dribble.

Boston relies on one-on-one defense, but that doesn’t mean it will be one or two players’ jobs to slow these guys down. The C’s will have to create chaos in order to keep Durant and Irving on their toes because whoever wins the isolation battle could very well win the series.

Don't Sleep on the Hometown Kid

All eyes will be on Durant and Irving during this series, but don’t sleep on Bruce Brown. The 25-year-old Boston native has taken off since the James Harden trade, emerging as one of the most well-rounded guards in the league down the final stretch of the regular season.

Brown had been more of a role player in games leading up to the trade deadline. Through Feb. 10, he averaged 6.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.5 blocks per game while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 29.7 percent from 3-point range.

Since deadline day, he has averaged 14.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game, while shooting 53.4 percent from the field and 47.4 percent from 3-point range.

The way Brooklyn has been using Brown in the short roll reminds Udoka of how Golden State utilizes Draymond Green on the offensive end: “They found a good spot when teams try to double-team Kyrie and KD, they like to find [Brown] in the middle of the paint, kind of like Golden State used Draymond with hand-offs and then attacking, floaters, finding the big.”

Brown has had success against his hometown team of late, tallying 31 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists, and four steals in his last two games against Boston.

The Injured X-Factors

Two of the biggest storylines revolve around two guys who won’t even have a uniform on for Game 1. Neither Robert Williams nor Ben Simmons is expected to play at the start of the series, but there is some speculation that both could return before it ends.

Williams has been out the last three weeks after tearing a portion of his left meniscus. It was estimated that he could return four to six weeks after surgery; the four-week mark would be March 27 – the day of Game 5. Adding him back into the frontcourt mix could be critical for the C’s, since he averaged 11.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game in three appearances –all wins – against Brooklyn this season, during which he was a plus-43.

Udoka says Williams has been doing non-contact basketball drills and getting a lot of shots up in the days leading up to Game 1. “It’s low-level, but he’s ramping it up day by day and feeling good about it,” the coach said Thursday.

As for Simmons, he could potentially make his season debut during the first round. The former All-Star sat out the first half of the season until Philadelphia granted his trade request, but he still hasn’t been able to suit up for his new team as he’s dealt with a herniated disk.

Simmons has reportedly yet to begin conditioning, so neither team is preparing for him to play at this point. However, he also hasn’t been ruled out, meaning he could make a surprise debut at any point.

Having either of these All-Defensive-caliber players return mid-series could make a profound impact on the final result. We’ll just have to wait and see if either of them will be ready to return in time.