Timing is everything. With James Harden returning from a five-week absence for two of the last three games of the regular season, the Brooklyn Nets’ big three is whole and hoping to play a lot more games together in the playoffs than it has so far.
Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant played together in just eight of the 59 games that the Nets played after acquiring Harden from the Houston Rockets, with leg injuries to the two former MVPs being the biggest obstacles to them achieving any kind of continuity. But the Nets went 41-18 in those games anyway, finishing the season with the most efficient offense in NBA history (117.3 points scored per 100 possessions) and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
That pits them against the first team to advance out of the new Play-In Tournament: the Boston Celtics. After last year’s run to the conference finals, the Celtics have had a disappointing season, seeing a big drop-off on defense. They had some good wins over good teams, but were remarkably inconsistent before losing Jaylen Brown to a season-ending wrist injury with less than a week left in the regular season.
They do have Jayson Tatum, who scored 50 points in the Play-In game on Tuesday night to put the Celtics in the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. Their reward is the challenge of defending what Celtics coach Brad Stevens called “probably the most talented team that’s been assembled since I’ve been in the NBA.”
Three things to watch
1. How connected will the Nets be defensively? As long as they don’t get too stagnant, the Nets shouldn’t have many concerns on offense. Harden and Irving defined their roles early in the season and there are no fit issues with Kevin Durant, who can make something out of nothing on any possession. But all those missed games could affect the Nets on defense, where their talent can’t necessarily overcome a lack of cohesion. Switching schemes takes time to master, and the Nets haven’t had that time. They ranked 22nd defensively in the regular season and in the 24 years prior to this one for which play-by-play data exists, only two teams have ranked lower than 11th on either end of the floor and gone on to win the championship. Those were the 2000-01 Lakers (22nd on defense) and the 2003-04 Pistons (19th on offense).
2. All eyes on Kemba Walker. Tatum is an ascending star, and he totaled 69 points on 27-for-49 (55%) shooting over the last two meetings with the Nets. But he can’t match Brooklyn’s firepower by himself. If the Celtics are to have a chance, they’ll need Walker to play big. Walker had an up-and-down season, seeing a big drop-off in how well he shot from mid-range. But he’s seen an increase in usage rate since Brown last played and has scored 29 points or more in four of his last five games. He played in only one of the three meetings with Brooklyn (Mar. 11), scoring just 11 points in 34 minutes, even though DeAndre Jordan’s pick-and-roll defense provided him with some good looks off the dribble.
3. The Brooklyn rotation. Jordan has been the odd man out on the Nets’ frontline of late. Even with LaMarcus Aldridge having retired, Brooklyn has three other options — Nicolas Claxton, Blake Griffin and Jeff Green — at center, with Griffin having started the last six games of the regular season and Claxton having played more than 20 minutes off the bench in each of the last four. Just as interesting as the center minutes will be how Nets coach Steve Nash staggers the minutes of his three stars, which of them (likely Harden) gets “solo” minutes, and how much time they’re all on the floor together.
Number to know
51.5% — The Nets don’t just have Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, three of the 13 players that averaged 24 points or more on a true shooting percentage better than 60% this season. They also have the shooter who led the league in 3-point percentage for the second time in three years. Joe Harris’ 47.5% from beyond the arc was the second best mark in NBA history for a player with at least 400 3-point attempts, topped only by Kyle Korver’s 49.2% in 2014-15. The attention that the Nets’ three stars draw leaves other players open and there’s not a better shooter (not named Curry) to have open on the weak side than Harris. He shot 51.5% on catch-and-shoot 3s, the best mark for a player with at least 200 catch-and-shoot attempts in eight seasons of player tracking. That’s a remarkable yield of 1.55 points per shot, almost as good as a DeAndre Jordan attempt in the restricted area (1.60).
The Nets are not invulnerable, especially if they’re not in a great rhythm after a long layoff. Their defense is error prone, and their focus can wane. They had the league’s fourth best record, but ranked 12th (tied with the Celtics) with only 12 wins by 15 points or more, needing “clutch time” to finish teams off more often than they should have. But they’re not playing any more regular season games against the Detroit Pistons. The playoffs should elicit greater focus, and if they’re locked in from the opening tip, the Nets should be able to take care of business against a shorthanded opponent. Much tougher challenges await. Nets in 4.
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