2022 Playoffs: East First Round | Celtics (2) vs. Nets (7)

Series preview: Celtics await potentially powerful underdog as Nets emerge from Play-In

Boston's big turnaround since the calendar flip has positioned the Celtics as a favorite, though the Nets could pop off for major points at any moment.

Kevin Durant’s scoring prowess will be put to the test against one of the league’s stoutest defenses.

Celtics-Nets series coverage
2022 NBA playoffs schedule

It’s not a huge surprise that the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets are meeting in the 2-7 series for the second straight season. But it’s kind of stunning that the roles have been reversed, with Boston the higher seed and Brooklyn the team that needed to go through the Play-In Tournament.

The Celtics exceeded expectations and recovered from an underwhelming start. They were 20-21 (and in 10th place, six games behind the second-place Nets) at the midpoint of the season and 25-25 after 50 games. But from that point on, they were the best team in the NBA by a healthy margin, going 26-6, ranking first in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and outscoring their opponents by an amazing 14.6 points per 100 possessions.

The Nets obviously failed to meet expectations, struggling after a 23-9 start. Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status limited him to 29 games, Kevin Durant missed 27 games with injuries, Joe Harris was lost for the season in November, and James Harden was not his best self before being traded to Philadelphia.

But facing Brooklyn is not exactly a reward for finishing second in the conference. The Nets are as dangerous a low seed as you’re ever going to see, employing two of the most potent scorers on the planet. And — just maybe, — Ben Simmons could make his Brooklyn debut at some point in this series.

Three things to watch

1. 1-on-1 or 4-on-3? The Celtics switch more screens than any team in the league, and a switching scheme can flatten out opposing offenses and force them to play one-on-one. But no team is more comfortable playing one-on-one than the Nets; Durant and Irving are two of the five players who scored better than a point per possession on at least five isolation possessions per game, according to Synergy tracking. Even without Robert Williams III (knee surgery), the Celtics don’t have any real defensive weak spots in their top seven guys, but slowing down Durant or Irving is a challenge for any defender and there will be times when Boston brings two to the ball. Then it’s a matter of the Nets’ executing in four-on-three situations and the Nets’ role players (Bruce Brown in particular) making shots against a team that rotates and recovers as well as any defense in the league.

2. For how long can the Nets defend? Brooklyn ranked 20th defensively this season, a slight improvement from last year. And as they finished the regular season on a 12-5 stretch, the Nets ranked eighth on that end of the floor. But even in their most important games, their defensive effort has waxed and waned. Against a team like Cleveland, the Nets can get away with playing just 18-24 minutes of good defense. But Boston is a much tougher challenge, with more guys who can handle the ball and attack the basket. No Eastern Conference team scored more efficiently against Brooklyn this season than the Celtics, who scored 121.6 points per 100 possessions as they won three of the four meetings.

3. The minutes on. The minutes off. The Nets have been playing important games for a few weeks now, and they’ve been leaning heavily on Durant, who’s averaged 41.3 minutes over their last nine games (including the Play-In), playing the entire second half three times over that stretch. In the regular season, the Nets were 12.0 points per 100 possessions better with Durant on the floor (plus-6.5) than they were with him off the floor (minus-5.5); There’s a reason why Steve Nash doesn’t let him sit long (if at all) at the starts of the second and fourth quarters. Of course, one of the nine players with a bigger on-off differential than Durant was Jayson Tatum, with the Celtics 14.0 points per 100 possessions better with their All-Star on the floor (plus-12.0) than they were with him off the floor (minus-1.9). Bench minutes will be key for both teams, and the Nets will have to hope that Durant (assuming he plays 42-44 minutes a night) doesn’t run out of gas by the end of a long series.

The number to know

62-20 — The Celtics finished in a three-way tie for the Eastern Conference’s second best record, two games behind the first-place Miami Heat. But they had the East’s best point differential (plus-7.3 points per game) by a huge margin and the league’s biggest differential between a team’s “expected wins” (based on point differential) and its actual wins. The Celtics were 51-31 with the point differential of a team that was 62-20.

The positive is that the Celtics were, statistically, the best team in the East by a healthy margin. They had 18 wins (tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the league lead) by 20 points or more. The negative is that they struggled in close games, going 13-22 (only the Indiana Pacers were worse) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. Jayson Tatum shot 2-for-25 on clutch 3-pointers (the worst mark among 74 players who attempted at least 15), while Marcus Smart shot 5-for-17 (29%) on clutch 2s. In the 26 years for which we have clutch data, the Celtics had the third biggest differential between their winning percentage in non-clutch games (38-9, .809) and their winning percentage in clutch games (13-22, .371).

The Nets were 22-20 in clutch games, though Boston won the only head-to-head meeting that was within five points in the last five minutes (March 6), scoring 13 points on nine clutch possessions.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

Durant will be the best player on the floor, and there will be times when the Celtics can’t do anything to stop him. The Nets have the ability to win any game over any team in any arena, having picked up wins in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Miami after the All-Star break. But sustained success has been elusive, and the Celtics have simply been the better team over the last seven weeks. Tatum is the real deal and over a long series, Boston can probably defend Brooklyn better than Brooklyn can defend Boston.  Celtics in 6.

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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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