With Game one of Nets vs. Celtics taking place on Saturday night at Barclays Center, I wanted to reach out and learn more about the good folks in mind. With that in mind, I hit up Greg Brueck-Cassoli of Celtics Blog. Here’s our conversation:
Brian Fleurantin: Coming into the season, a lot of us had Boston set to be in the top five of the East at the very least. What do you think was the biggest cause of them not meeting certain expectations?
Greg Brueck-Cassoli: LOTS of things went wrong in Boston this year, but the biggest issue for the Celtics was missed time due to injury and COVID. Every team was hit pretty hard by absences in the condensed schedule. No need to explain that to Nets enthusiasts. But Boston’s depth was paper thin, and they wound up playing a lot of fringe rotation pieces and inconsistent young prospects as a result. Add in a touch of roster imbalance and an under-discussed talent drain across the past three years and you get yourself a seven seed.
BF: It really looks like Jayson Tatum has taken that next step from All Star to superstar. How good is he and where do you see him going from here?
GBC: Jayson Tatum is very, very, very good. He’s a devastating scorer, an incredible spot-up shooter, and a disruptive off-ball defender. What’s most exciting for Celtics’ fans is that he’s still got room to grow. A lot of Tatum’s offense comes from side-step threes and tricky midrange fadeaways. Those moves look incredible (because they are), but they’re not the foundation for the most efficient game. Tatum is leaving a ton of potential points and defensive attention on the table by not attacking the basket more consistently. Boston got a glimpse of what an evolved version of his approach might look like in their play-in game against the Wizards. Tatum still displayed plenty of tough shot-making, but it was his relentlessness heading to the hoop that stood out most. He got to the line 17 times, more than triple his typical attempt rate, and ended the night with 50 points.
Obviously that kind of performance is an outlier, but it highlighted a real area for growth. Tatum’s ability to get to the basket and draw fouls should only go up from here, as he continues to get stronger and even more confident in his handle.
I’d say that put’s the Celtics’ precocious young wing at a level of perennial All-Star with all the trappings of a player who features prominently in the All-NBA conversation most years. If he can improve as a playmaker for his teammates, then we may be talking about an MVP-caliber player. That wouldn’t shock me. Tatum has shown an incredible capacity for growth throughout his first four seasons in the league. The sky is the limit.
BF: Which assignment would you give to Marcus Smart: James Harden or Kyrie Irving?
GBC: I have to confess. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how the Celtics should approach defending the Nets’ trio of insanely talented offensive threats. There aren’t any good solutions. Not having Jaylen Brown available makes it almost impossible to devise any theoretical approach that is even palatable. I think Smart has to take Harden as his initial assignment. Unless the Celtics think Evan Fournier is up for the task, Boston has no other perimeter defenders with the strength and quickness to be more than a traffic cone or a fly on Harden’s windshield. I’d then roll the dice with (gulp) Kemba Walker on Kyrie Irving, and (huge gulp) Fournier on Kevin Durant, with Tatum dealing with KD if the game is close late.
BF: By looking at the numbers and Celtics fans on Twitter, it looks like they love them some Robert Williams. How important do you think he’ll be to Boston’s chances in this series?
GBC: If he’s healthy Robert Williams gives Boston a nice boost against most teams, but I’m not sure Brooklyn is the ideal matchup for him. If the Nets go small, the Celtics might be able to leverage him as a lob threat to pressure the rim without too much resistance. He’s quick enough to handle some switching on the opposite end. Although if Brooklyn really downsized and played Durant at center he’d be in big trouble. Williams might actually be most helpful if Brooklyn stays big and tries to sag off him in the paint. He’s an excellent passer and ball mover, and can do lots of great stuff to juice the offense in terms of hand-offs and setting smart screens on and off the ball if he’s given enough space. Defensively he’s solid, but thinking about him trying to deal with the likes of Harden and Irving in the pick-and-roll probably makes any rational Celtics fan a bit queasy. At the end of the day Williams is pretty good on both ends of the court with occasional flashes of brilliance and few brain farts thrown in. That’s significantly better than most of Boston’s alternative options.
BF: From the outside looking in, it looks as if Kemba Walker has had a pretty disappointing tenure in Boston considering the expectations placed upon him to replace Kyrie. What do think he will need to do to turn things around and have a great series against the Nets?
GBC: I don’t know that I would necessarily say that Walker has had a disappointing tenure or that he was a direct replacement for Kyrie. He certainly had a disappointing Playoffs last year, and a slow start to the current campaign, but that was largely due to injury, which feels like something a bit out of his control. Walker has been good lately, and that is an encouraging sign for the Celtics. Their offense is lightyears better when he’s playing well. If opponents play a drop scheme in the pick-and-roll he can be a killer pulling up as the ball handler. Opt for a switch-heavy strategy, and when he’s right Walker is a nightmare to stay in front of. Size can confound him at times, particularly by the basket. If the Nets roll with Blake Griffin at center, then there may be hope for him to attack the rack more effectively than usual. Anyone longer and more mobile could spell trouble.
Defensively Walker may be a bit underrated. He works hard and isn’t afraid to take a charge. He’s too small to be truly impactful, but at the very least he’s in the right places at the right time more often than not. If he can do that and be a significant contributor on offense against Brooklyn, Celtics’ fans should be satisfied.
BF: Is there a player non-regular observers of the Celtics should keep a close eye on in this matchup?
GBC: If the Nets trend small in their lineup deployments we may get a healthy dose of Grant Williams. He’s a wrecking ball with legs who sometimes looks like PJ Tucker lite and sometimes looks like he barely belongs in the NBA. Williams does his best work as a center, despite being only 6’6”. Expect him to work hard on defense, take a few threes, and set some absolutely bone-jarring screens.
Boston may give a bit of run to rookie Aaron Nesmith as well. He’s a basketball psychopath. Think Bruce Brown with way less feel for the game, a much better jump shot, and about 20% more unhinged (their games are really nothing alike, but their energy isn’t all that dissimilar). Nesmith’s recklessness stresses me out for the safety of everyone involved, but he’s shifted a couple of games in the Celtics’ favor simply by wrestling up offensive rebounds, diving for loose balls, and hitting open looks. Fellow rookie Payton Pritchard deserves a quick shoutout as well. He’s been a reliable backup point guard all year.
If any other lesser-known Celtics are in the game, it’s probably not a good sign for Boston.
BF: Is there anything else Nets fans should know about the Celtics?
GBC: Absolutely! If Nets fans want to know about the Celtics, they should take a look at all the great work from my fellow blog boys over at Celticsblog. Is this a shameless plug? Yes. But there really is some awesome content that goes up every single day, certainly much more than I could fit into an answer here.
BF: What’s your prediction for the series?
GBC: I think Jayson Tatum has at least one bonkers game in him that gets the Celtics a win, but I don’t expect this to be a very long series. Nets in five.
Many thanks to Greg for taking time for us! You can find him on Twitter here.