Through two games of their first-round series with the Boston Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets have been outscored by a total of eight points. They led Game 1 with one second left on the clock, and they led Game 2 by as many as 17.
But the Nets have earned no points for playing close games on the road. As they return home for Game 3 on Saturday (7:30 ET, ESPN), they are in a desperate situation. And it’s not clear that, over the course of 48 minutes, if the Nets can defend the Celtics as well as they’re being defended on the other end of the floor.
Here are some numbers, notes and film on the East 2-7 series as it heads to Brooklyn:
1. The Nets’ offense hasn’t been that bad
The Celtics have played tenacious, synergetic and unrelenting defense. Kevin Durant has shot 13-for-41 (32%), with just a single bucket inside of 10 feet (he’s 1-for-4). His effective field goal percentage of 34.1% is his seventh-worst mark for any two-game stretch since his rookie season.
But the Nets have still scored 115.1 points per 100 possessions, 8.9 more than the Celtics allowed in the regular season. By that measure, they’ve had the fifth best offense of the first round through Friday.
Best adjusted offense, first round
|Team||OffRtg||Rank||Opp. RS Def||Diff.|
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
Opp. RS Def. = Opponent’s points allowed per 100 possessions in the regular season
The Nets lead the playoffs in 3-point percentage (21-for-45, 47%) and rank second in free-throw rate (37.7 attempts per 100 shots from the field). Durant (still tied with Jayson Tatum for the best scoring average in the series at 25 ppg) and Kyrie Irving have combined to shoot 33-for-36 (92%) from the line.
2. More shooting, better offense
The Nets’ starting lineup has been outscored by 12 points in its 34 minutes, having scored just 72 points on 63 offensive possessions (104.3 per 100). It had some success (plus-10, 18 points on 14 possessions) in the first quarter of Game 2, but is otherwise a minus-22 (54 on 55) in 28 minutes.
Bruce Brown has shot 4-for-5 from 3-point range and is 21-for-35 (60%) on right-corner 3s for the season. But those five attempts have come in 74 minutes in this series, and if he’s not in the right corner or rolling to the rim, Brown is hesitant to shoot. Even as he was scoring 12 points in the first quarter on Wednesday, Brown ran himself off of a couple of wide-open 3s.
That play illustrated how the Celtics are treating Brown. To them, he’s a non-shooter, one they’re willing to leave open in order to double-team or shade toward Durant. With Brown and Andre Drummond, the Nets have two non-shooters in their starting lineup, making things more difficult for their stars. And the numbers confirm that’s been the case.
In 63 minutes with Durant on the floor with two non-shooters (counting Nic Claxton as another), the Nets have scored 122 points on 128 offensive possessions (95.3 per 100). But in 21 minutes with Durant on the floor with fewer than two non-shooters, the Nets have scored 64 points on 46 offensive possessions (139.1 per 100). The defense has been worse in those minutes, but the much more efficient offense has made up for it.
Nets’ efficiency with Durant on floor
|One or zero||21||139.1||135.0||+4.1||+10|
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The numbers are a little wonky, because Brooklyn has used the non-shooting alignment for a lot more defensive possessions (137) than offensive possessions (128) and the shooting alignment for a lot more offensive possessions (46) than defensive possessions (40).
Durant is just 4-for-10 from the field in those 21 minutes with zero or one non-shooter on the floor, but he’s had a much higher free-throw rate (FTA/FGA) in those minutes (14/10) than he has with two non-shooters on the floor (11/31).
Just 21 minutes is a small sample size, but small sample sizes are all you get in a playoff series. And it will be interesting to see if the Nets go all-in on offense and try to unleash Durant with more of those minutes on Saturday. Their offense has been good, but not good enough.
3. Too small
Kessler Edwards is counted as a “shooter” in the above math, but the Celtics haven’t showed him much respect either, and the 6-7 rookie has played just seven minutes over the two games. Otherwise, the Nets shooters — Irving, Seth Curry, Goran Dragic and Patty Mills — are all 6-3 or shorter and big targets for the Celtics on the other end of the floor.
According to tracking data, the Celtics have shot 29-for-47 (62%) against Irving and Dragic. When Jaylen Brown has seen one of those guys in front of him, his eyes have lit up.
So that’s the other side of the Nets’ rotation question. They could increase the minutes of Dragic and Mills to give their offense a boost, but that would certainly hurt them on the other end of the floor. Other than Durant (or Edwards in theory), they simply don’t have anybody who can both shoot and provide resistance/size on defense.
LaMarcus Aldridge (who had a couple of good shooting games against Boston in the regular season) might be an option at the five, but, like the guards, he would be a target of the Celtics’ offense. Blake Griffin (more mobility, streaky shooting) might be a compromise.
4. ATO Delight
According to Synergy tracking, the Celtics ranked No. 1 in after-timeout efficiency (1.03 points per play) in the regular season. They haven’t been nearly as efficient in this series (0.89), but they got an open 3 for Brown on a big after-timeout possession in the fourth quarter on Wednesday. They used Tatum as a screen-setter and when the Nets switched his screen for Payton Pritchard, he was able to roll into the paint and put the Nets in rotation:
5. Forming like Voltron
Robert Williams III, who has missed the Celtics’ last nine games after tearing the meniscus in his left knee, is officially listed as “questionable” for Game 3. He will reportedly try to play and should be more of a full participant in Game 4 on Monday.
In the regular season, the Celtics’ (when-healthy) starting lineup outscored its opponents by 24.6 points per 100 possessions (allowing just 94.2 per 100), the best mark among 34 lineups that played at least 200 minutes. In 217 regular-season minutes with the other four starters on the floor without Williams, the Cs were outscored by 0.5 per 100 (allowing 107.6).
The Nets might get their own addition to their rotation in Game 4, with Ben Simmons reportedly targeting Monday for his Brooklyn debut. But to make that one really matter, the Nets will need to win Game 3, having now lost five straight to these Celtics.
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