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A conversation, Part I: Two ND writers preview Nets-Celtics series

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Matt Brooks and Alec Sturm take an in-depth look at the first-round series between the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets. It’s the first in a series.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

As we approach the eighth anniversary of the fateful trade between the Nets and Celtics, almost to the day, it’s only fitting we’ve been gifted a matchup between these two teams in the first round.

Though the standings don’t bear it out, the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets have had somewhat similar seasons, marked by COVID, untimely injuries, and a revolving door of starting lineups that caused the head to spin and not just for the fans, but for players too.

Brooklyn has been better able to persevere through the hardships of this season, to cope, using the unfortunate circumstances to build, grow, and develop some of its players further down the rotation. Now, the Nets enter the postseason with depth that most teams would kill for... and a “Big Three” consisting of three of the game’s 10 best players.

Boston, on the other hand, just never found that rhythm, as Kemba Walker's knee injury at the beginning of the season and now Jaylen Brown’s season-ending wrist surgery have sapped Boston’s ability to build any common history. The Nets have had the better timing, the Celtics not so much.

Matt Brooks: To help sift through the bits and pieces of this matchup, I’ve enlisted the assistance of our very own Alec Sturm, who covers the New York Liberty, the Long Island Nets, and of course the Brooklyn Nets for us. In my humble opinion, Alec is one of the brightest young sports minds in the game. (Editor’s note: agreed.)

Alec, first off, how are you doing? Are you excited about this series?

Alec Sturm: I’m doing great, Matt! I’m not sure the Nets have been favored in a first-round playoff series since moving to Brooklyn so this newfound sense of confidence entering the postseason is definitely a breath of fresh air!

MB: To get right into it, when you look at this series, what’s the key variable that will swing this matchup one way or the other?

AS: For me, it’s Boston’s ability to attack the Nets’ weaknesses, namely weak interior defense. The Nets aren’t a formidable team defensively by any means, but where they struggle the most is when facing size down low. Boston’s best bet is attacking them in the paint and hoping they can keep pace with Brooklyn’s historic offense with high-percentage looks at the rim.

Unfortunately for them, they seem ill-suited for such a task. The Celtics’ rim frequency ranks 25th in the NBA according to Cleaning The Glass and Boston’s most consistent perimeter player at getting to the hoop — Jaylen Brown — has gone down with an injury. Speaking of Brown, Matt, how do you think his absence affects the series?

MB: While I agree with you that losing Jaylen Brown borders on catastrophic for Boston, my reasoning behind doubting the Celts actually has nothing to do with rim pressure (though that is important, as you astutely indicated).

Losing Jaylen Brown turns up the lighting on Boston’s biggest weakness as a team — its bench — which finished 28th in scoring at just 31.3 points per game according to NBA stats. I threw this on Twitter the other day, but there’s a real chance that Brooklyn deploys a bench unit of three plus-shooters in Jeff Green, Joe Harris, and Landry Shamet and an evolving pick-and-roller in Nicolas Claxton to deploy a Houston-esque reserve unit that perfectly accentuates James Harden’s greatness in the spread pick-and-roll.

Boston is as good as dead in the water if they even think about tossing out lineups that do not feature either one of Jayson Tatum or Kemba Walker. Per PBP Stats, lineups without Boston’s “Big Three” (Brown, Tatum, and Walker) produced offense that would rank 29th in the league with a 103.1 offensive rating and a net rating of -5.7. Gross.

If you’re Boston, how do you overcome the bench-sized elephant in the room?

AS: You have to do it on the glass. The Celtics aren’t going to be able to match the Nets shot-for-shot in the halfcourt, so creating extra possessions is going to be vital for this Boston squad. It’s something the Nets are acutely aware of, too. Nets coach Steve Nash said on Wednesday that “it is a key for [the Nets] to limit [Boston’s] offensive rebounds.” The Celtics have played well on the offensive glass, ranking sixth in ORB%. Both Celtics centers are well equipped in this area, with Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams being in the 90th+ percentile for offensive rebounding rate. Thompson has carved out a career by getting the dirty work done, and Williams’ youthful energy is sure to bring chaos down low.

Though Williams didn’t play in Boston’s last matchup with the Nets, the Celtics were still able to keep the game close on the boards. (Brooklyn ultimately won by five). Four of Thompson’s nine rebounds were offensive, and the Celtics dominated, generating 26 putbacks.

The Nets have two of the better rebounding guards in the league in the energizer bunny that is Bruce Brown and James Harden, but Harden’s effectiveness on the boards can be effort-based and inconsistent, and 6’4” Bruce Brown is only going to be so effective in mitigating the Celtics.

How do you think the Celts will make up lost ground with their bench unit?

MB: I totally agree with you on the importance of offensive rebounding for the Celtics. Ranking 19th in defensive rebounding rate certainly doesn’t help things for the Nets, though that is to be expected given that the Nets have been atop the leaderboard in switching screens for most of the season (switching, of course, pulls Brooklyn’s bigs away from the rim and thereby the defensive glass).

One thing to note is that although the Celtics have been dominant at grabbing offensive boards in the half court setting (they’re second in ORB%, per Cleaning the Glass), Boston hasn’t been particularly efficient at taking advantage of all those extra chances, scoring just 96.9 points per 100 half court offensive rebounding possessions according to CTG. That ranks just 15th in the NBA. Going a level further, Boston ranks seventh in generating putback opportunities, per CTG, but sits at slot number 26 in scoring on those putbacks, which speaks mostly to Tristan Thompson’s, erm, iffy hands.

For me, the biggest swing factor for Boston will be splitting up Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum’s minutes. Ideally, that eases the strain on what I call B.B.B. — AKA Boston’s bad bench.

Now the obvious counter to Brooklyn when Boston deploys its one-star lineups will be to simply trap both Tatum and Walker to force the ball out of their hands so that it swings to Boston’s role players. I can already hear Steve Nash’s voice clearly: “Please beat us, Semi Ojeleye! Go right ahead, Grant Williams!” (Though he’d probably be a little more polite about it.)

Even for some of Boston’s more integral players, Brooklyn has been more than happy to let them fire away. Marcus Smart comes to mind in this regard. If one thing remained consistent across Brooklyn and Boston’s regular-season matchups, it’s that the Nets completely disregarded Smart on the perimeter. The 27-year-old Celtic shoots a LeVertian better percentage on pull-up threes than catch-and-shoots, and the Nets have used this against him by baiting Smart into catch-and-fire treys with short closeouts.

Lineups featuring Jayson Tatum without Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown have just slightly outscored opponents by 0.05 points per 100 possessions. Swap Tatum for Walker and Kemba-only lineups have yielded a -4.2 net rating in 158 total minutes. Boston’s goal should be to win the Tatum-Walker minutes (good luck), fight to a draw during the Tatum-only portions of games, and merely survive when it’s just Kemba out there.

Switching gears again, for the Nets, who is your X-Factor in this series?

AS: I’ve got to go with Blake Griffin. When Blake was acquired, the Nets caught a lot of slack for the move with critics essentially saying he was washed and didn’t contribute to winning anymore (and that he couldn’t dunk!) Blake has proven his doubters wrong, becoming a feisty role player in Brooklyn who has a knack for taking charges — he led the league with 22 this year — and diving for loose balls. (Not to mention looping behind-the-back passes.)

Once seen as a luxury on a stacked roster, Griffin has become more of a necessity, one of Brooklyn’s complementary pieces that have filled out their respective roles. On a team that has featured more starting lineups (38!) than I can keep track of, Griffin has started at center as of late. Teams have resorted to leaving him open from deep, seeing as a Blake Griffin 3-point attempt is a near best-case scenario when matched up against Brooklyn’s dynamic offense.

Griffin’s accuracy and shot selection behind the arc will be instrumental in a potential deep Nets playoff run. There have been very promising signs. Griffin is shooting 40.2% on catch-and-shoot threes, but a mere 28.1% on pull-ups, according to NBA Stats’ tracking data. He’s best when wide open — 44.8% when there’s no defender 6+ feet away — but struggles when they’re even 4-6 away at 29.9%. Griffin is a skilled long-range shooter, but he needs to completely eliminate these types of attempts from his shot diet in the postseason:

If Blake Griffin can optimize his 3-point shooting, the Nets offense would just reach a whole new level of unstoppable with a stretch-five. As for you, Matt, who’s your X-Factor?

MB: I’ll keep this brief. Because of how small the Celtics trend, this kind of feels like a great series for Nicolas Claxton, no? While I’m growing increasingly comfortable with the idea of Clax guarding larger centers (Giannis, Joel Embiid, etc.) after his pair of performances against the Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic to end the regular season, we still need to see how the rail-thin center responds to playoff physicality.

Against the Celtics, you don’t really have to worry about that. If Boston chooses to post up Tristan Thompson and play bully-ball against Clax, I mean, by all means.

Brooklyn’s defensive rebounding rate improves by one percent when Nic is on the floor, which doesn’t sound like much, but that ranks within the 66th percentile at his position. His switchability will be a welcomed sight should Boston run pick-and-roll sets for its two best players (hint: they will). He’s had some success in those situations during previous matchups.

Boston doesn’t pick on his defensive weaknesses… if he even has any.

To cap this thing off, who are you picking in this series? And in how many games?

AS: I’d love to watch a competitive series, but I’ll take the Nets in a sweep. Boston’s season already wasn’t rosy, but Jaylen Brown’s injury was the nail on the coffin for me. Without him, they simply don’t have the manpower to match Brooklyn for 48 minutes. The Celtics don’t have the profile of a team that can expose the Nets and I’d be surprised if Kyrie Irving didn’t take this one a little personally after his unceremonious exit.

After seeing them on the court together against Chicago on the second-to-last night of the season, there’s reason to believe Brooklyn’s “Big Three” won’t seamlessly mesh right away. Still, the Celtics shouldn’t pose enough of a threat for Durant, Irving and Harden to learn to play together on the fly — and in the thick of postseason basketball.

MB: I also have Nets in 4. This is the second-worst Celtics team of the Brad Stevens era according to net rating. In fact, the only other Celtics team to finish below a 2.0 net rating was the 2014-2015 squad, which promptly lost in 4 games during Stevens’ inaugural playoff berth.

My rule of thumb for beating these Nets is that the opponent HAS to sit in the top-10 in offensive rating. At the bare minimum, the top-15. Anything less and it’s tough to keep pace with these high-scoring Nets. Since Jaylen Brown was ruled out for the season, Boston’s 10th-ranked offense has slipped all the way to spot #18. That’s just not good enough to beat these Nets, simply put.