BROOKLYN — What looked like the best series in the first round, especially after an incredible Game 1, is now on the brink of a sweep. The Boston Celtics took complete control of their first-round series with the Brooklyn Nets with a 109-103 victory in Game 3 on Saturday.
This game was a display of the same Boston strengths and the same Brooklyn weaknesses that we witnessed in Games 1 and 2. The Celtics’ defense was suffocating, yet the Nets’ offense was still somewhat solid (103 points on only 90 possessions). But it wasn’t good enough given Brooklyn’s defensive issues. And the lack of scoring from Kevin Durant (16 points on 6-for-11 shooting in 46 minutes) was, once again, absolutely glaring.
Here are some notes, numbers and film from another impressive victory from what was the Celtics’ sixth straight victory over the team that eliminated them from last year’s playoffs.
1. The series’ two biggest stars
In a series with Durant and Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been the two best offensive players. The Celtics’ two stars were fantastic on both ends of the floor on Saturday, totaling 62 points, 11 assists and eight steals.
Tatum doing what he did offensively while also being the Celtics’ primary defender on Durant is rather remarkable. He played 44:37 in Game 3, played physically against Durant for most of that time, and still had enough in the tank to score 14 points in the fourth quarter, playing all 12 minutes. He finished with 39 points, five rebounds, six assists and six steals.
Brown was the go-to guy for much of that fourth quarter, isolating against whichever Brooklyn defender seemed most ripe for the picking. The Nets were within five points early in the fourth, but with Brown handling the ball, the Celtics scored on six straight possessions (15 points) to go back up 12. Brown finished with 23 points, five assists and two steals and is now averaging a series-high 14.7 points in the paint.
Of course, the Celtics’ two stars have been enabled by the Nets’ lack of competent defenders. Bruce Brown can get after it on that end of the floor, but has been too small to contest Tatum:
The primary defender on Brown has been Seth Curry, and size hasn’t been the Nets’ only issue on that end of the floor.
“We are small and have a hard time containing the ball,” Nets coach Steve Nash lamented. “I don’t think our help was great enough tonight. They drove us.”
Brooklyn has roster flaws, with Durant – and maybe Brown – the only player on the roster that doesn’t have issues on one end of the floor or the other.
2. Self-inflicted issues
Still, while the roster has flaws and while the Celtics have played terrific in this series, the Nets have also shot themselves in the foot. They got off to a quick start and played solid defense on three of the Celtics’ first four possessions, but then let Marcus Smart walk into a wide-open 3, because they didn’t match up in transition:
With four minutes left in the first quarter, Irving committed a transition “take” foul with the Celtics in the bonus, gifting Brown with a free trip to the line. And after the Nets closed to within one by scoring on six straight possessions at the end of the first half, neither Irving, Durant nor Nicolas Claxton bothered to step in front of Smart as he waltzed down the lane (after dropping Patty Mills) for a layup:
The opponent driving to the basket should be an emergency situation for a defense, where you put out the fire and go from there if the driver passes. But the Nets haven’t treated it as such nearly enough.
Of course, the majority of their self-inflicted issues were on the other end of the floor. The Nets shot 51% from the field, including 12-for-29 (41%) from 3-point range, in Game 3. Shooting is the most important aspect of offense (or defense), and this was the second time in this series in which they had a higher effective field goal percentage than the Celtics.
But Brooklyn committed 21 turnovers, with five of those coming directly after a timeout or at the start of a quarter. Thirteen of the 21 turnovers were live balls, and the Celtics immediately scored in transition off of 11 of those 13 live-ball turnovers, with those 11 transition scores totaling 24 points.
So maybe Irving committing a take foul with Boston in the bonus wasn’t such a bad idea.
3. Durant in his own head
Durant had almost as many turnovers (five) as field goals (six). The Celtics have played him physically and double-teamed him liberally. When they haven’t doubled, they’ve always had second and third defenders ready to take away his driving lanes. While Jaylen Brown has 44 total points in the paint this series, Durant has six. His first (and only) restricted-area bucket came on the Nets’ first possession of the fourth quarter of Game 3.
Durant’s effective field goal percentage of 34.1% through Games 1 and 2 were his seventh-worst mark for any two-game stretch since his rookie season. He probably forced things a little too much and missed some open shooters as he shot 0-for-10 in the second half of Game 2.
But Durant over-corrected in Game 3, when he probably passed too often. And there were several confounding moments from one of the best players in the world on Saturday, including a weird turnover after he got into the paint early in the third quarter …
… a pass to nobody …
… and another pass to nobody …
It was almost like he was too ready to pass. But he’s not a 6-foot-3 point guard. “He’s Kevin ****ing Durant.” And he admitted afterward that he was thinking too much.
“Just not making the right decisions,” he said. “I felt like the first two games, I was trying to be too aggressive. [Against] a team that’s loading up on me, that’s trying to take me out of all my actions, I felt like I was trying to still force it the first two games. And watching film, a lot of my teammates were open, and they were knocking down shots.
“So I felt my approach to this game was to play off of everybody and get the flow of the offense, let the ball move and find me. I probably should have took more shots, but I just tried play the game the right way without being too aggressive or force the turnovers. I was thinking too much, to be honest, this whole series, like how I’m gonna approach the game.
“Basketball is when you just flow and you don’t have to think about ****. You don’t have to worry about the little stuff. In my mind, I’m just trying to see how I can help everyone. And sometimes I end up taking myself out the game.”
4. Just how good are the Celtics?
By the numbers, the Celtics have been the best team in the NBA by a healthy margin since late January. They went 26-6, ranking first in both offensive and defensive efficiency and outscoring their opponents by an amazing 14.8 points per 100 possessions over their final 32 games of the regular season.
Now they’re 3-0 in the playoffs against the team that both Las Vegas and the NBA’s GMs pegged as the title favorite. Brooklyn has flaws, is missing an All-Star-caliber player, and just isn’t playing to its potential. But the Nets have survived against lesser teams, and they had impressive road wins in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Miami after the All-Star break.
The one team they haven’t been able to beat is this one. The Celtics have minimal flaws, and with Robert Williams III back from his knee injury, they have a strong and big rotation that goes nine deep. If there’s a weakness that another opponent can exploit, we haven’t seen it yet.
It’s still very early, but it’s hard not to think that the Celtics have a serious chance to reach the NBA Finals for the 22nd time in franchise history.
5. The Ben Simmons question still lingers
Ben Simmons hasn’t played in more than 10 months and the Nets are now facing elimination. Bringing him back for Game 4 would seem kind of pointless, and Simmons hasn’t even shared the practice floor with the Nets’ other rotation players. (He’s only played 3-on-3 with the non-rotation group.)
But reports have Simmons set to play in Game 4 on Monday (7 ET, TNT). And Nash said before Game 3 that the score of the series wouldn’t determine Simmons’ status.
“It’s really a matter of if Ben’s ready to play, whether it’s 3-0 or 2-1 or whatever,” Nash said. “I don’t know that the score of the series is as big a factor as ‘Is he ready to play?'”
No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the NBA playoffs. And the Nets did not look like a team that’s enthusiastic about its chances to make this series interesting.
But it would still be compelling to see if Simmons can help in their areas of need.
In talking about his team’s shortcomings after Game 3, Nash said, “They’re bigger at every position, really. So us trying to find space is much more possible if we play with pace, play in transition.”
Simmons has size and he’s a force in transition. Maybe he can help, though it’s probably too late.
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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