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Nets host Celtics in biggest game of season

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Boston day! Ben Simmons’ return to Philadelphia was a dud for a few reasons, including the best Sixers’ absences draining some juice from the match-up. The schedule-makers once again exiled Brooklyn from the prized island of Christmas Day, where they existed for so long. The Nets don’t even have a game on the NBA’s B-holiday slate, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

So when Brooklyn, in the midst of an NBA-high four-game win-streak, plays host to the Boston Celtics on Sunday evening, it may wind up being the biggest regular season game of the year. It certainly is to this point, even with the lack of a national broadcast. Let’s get right to it.

Where to follow the game

As aforementioned, it’s all local. YES Network and the YES App have the telecast, and WFAN-FM has the radio call. We have the rare 6:00 p.m. ET scheduled start-time.


Two of Brooklyn’s three, tall lefties are out once again. Ben Simmons and Yuta Watanabe will be missing their third and eight consecutive games, respectively. Edmond Sumner is also out for Sunday’s contest with a glute injury, sustained during a hard fall in Friday’s game vs. Toronto. The Nets recalled both Kessler Edwards and Day’Ron Sharpe Sunday from the Long Island Nets.

On the Boston side Robert Williams III still hasn’t played this season as he rehabs a surgically repaired knee; that will continue vs. Brooklyn. Marcus Smart, the reigning DPOY, is questionable with a left hip contusion.

The game

I skipped over the mini-recap of that Friday win vs. Toronto, but there are still valuable lessons to be learned for Brooklyn, if they want to pull off the upset victory over the league’s best team. And boy do I mean the league’s best team.

In my preview of the Raptors game I wrote that, since November 2nd, the Nets have had the 4th-best net rating in the league. Jacque Vaughn’s Nets have been an excellent team with a solid record, and are sneakily in position to host a playoff series. Boston, over that same month-long time period, is destroying teams by 10.7 points per 100 possessions, to the tune of a 14-3 record. The difference between their point differential and that of the 2nd-place Pelicans is greater than that of the Pelicans and the 10th-place Bucks.


So, those valuable lessons? I could just boil it down to “play like they did in the first half,” which Brooklyn won by 23 points. The Raptors played like they had enjoyed a Thursday night out in New York City; the Nets played with an aggressive energy. For a matchup like Sunday’s, certainly not “just another game” despite what Jacque Vaughn may say pre-game, that may become nervous energy. That’s reasonable, if not acceptable, so long as the Nets stick to their principles, the first being ball movement:

We know that, even if it’s not at playoff-level intensity, Boston will throw two bodies, if not three, at Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. How quickly Brooklyn reacts and gets the Celtics defense in motion will go a long way in determining the feel of this one.

A little-known secret about last season's sweep at the hands of Boston is that the offense...wasn’t a problem, statistically. Brooklyn posted an O-rating of 115 vs. the Celtics, five points better than what Golden State would post in the Finals. That was largely thanks to role players like Bruce Brown and Seth Curry making everything. Even then, though, the largely stagnant offense, coupled with a high turnover rate that allowed Boston to get out and run, played into the Celtics’ hands. They were never in scramble mode, despite Brooklyn hitting tough shots. Even throwing the kitchen sink at Kevin Durant, there were never bodies unaccounted for. Despite the offensive success the Nets experienced in that series, their offense waned in the fourth-quarter, due to its predictability.

These Brooklyn Nets, particularly under Jacque Vaughn, are much more adept at reading and reacting, inserting bursts of randomness into the offense. Take this give and go between Nic Claxton and Joe Harris:

That give-and-go off a fake-handoff was such a sight to see because it was a proactive response to defensive attention on Durant. Instead of “Let’s wait to see if they double KD and react accordingly,” it was “Let’s capitalize on the way Toronto is defending KD.” It’s also worth noting that Claxton showed off his tantalizing potential as a dribble-handoff guy multiple times on Friday night, including that play. Bite on the fake, and his long strides lead him to the rim in an eye-blink.


Unfortunately for opponents, it’s not Boston’s defense that has led them to an 18-5 record. It’s their offense, which has been even scarier than that terrifying defensive unit of last season, which anchored their Finals run despite moments of offensive awkwardness. They’re scoring 122.1 points per 100 this season; that's better than the Harden-led Nets, which may still be a sore spot but will always be a valuable point of reference for offensive excellence. It’s about 10 points better than league average, which would be an NBA-record if it holds. They have five players in the NBA’s top 14 3-point shooters by percentage.

That stat speaks volumes to me, even though it is one that will likely change dramatically by the All-Star Break. I don’t care how open his looks are, Malcolm Brogdon isn’t a 50% three-point shooter, nor is Grant Williams a 46% shooter. Yet, having five players shoot that well from deep, with none of them being Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, shows you how well Boston plays off their stars. There’s cutting from the weak-side to collapse the defense, there’s swing-passing, there’s back-screening, and all of it is off the charts:

For a Brooklyn team that’s faced issues over-helping this season, this game figures to be a monumental challenge. This is not a matter of effort (primarily) on the glass, as it has been consistently vs. other, younger, under-manned teams this season. It’s about staying disciplined in help and preventing easy dribble-penetration. To that end, nonchalant switches like these just can’t happen on Sunday:

Possessions like those exemplify how Toronto eventually trimmed a 36-point lead to single digits: “Ah, we’re up 21, we’ll concede the easy switch.” None of that energy will fly vs. Boston. Tatum having 15 seconds on the clock to work vs., say, Kyrie Irving in single coverage will be the death of Brooklyn. Even a play like this, where Siakam drives by Irving but meets significant resistance, punctuated by an emphatic block from Claxton, will instead turn into a wide-open corner three with Boston at the wheel:

Neither Yuta Watanabe nor Ben Simmons hurts in this matchup. Even T.J. Warren, whose debut was very encouraging despite the lack of vertical lift, isn’t ready to provide real resistance to Boston’s death machine of an offense. (That vertical lift from Warren certainly can’t be analyzed in one game back. I am very excited to see what his Nets future holds.)

I hope Royce O’Neale had a peaceful Saturday night; he’ll be asked to do a ton of work on either Tatum or Brown. KD, whose defensive value this year has largely come from consistent rotations from the weak-side to protect the rim, will probably have to strap up and face Tatum or Brown, even Marcus Smart (if he plays) one-on-one. Irving must contain Brogdon to the best of his abilities, and this sure is a game you’d like to rely on 15 minutes from Edmond Sumner. We haven’t seen Patty Mills in a while, but if we do vs. Boston, he will die out there. Seth Curry may meet the same fate, but Brooklyn has no choice.

In the end, you just have to hope the bench unit does enough for the centerpiece: Irving-Harris-O’Neale-Durant-Claxton. That will be the lineup to get Brooklyn home on Sunday. That five has only played 161 possessions together, but they're a cumulative +32 in that time. How have they been that good? The defense, actually. Per Cleaning the Glass, that group is allowing a 2006-like 95 points per 100 possessions to opposing offenses. Again, small sample size; a few missed threes rolling in changes that number significantly. But that group, for now, is creating turnovers (16.6% TOV rate) and grabbing boards (21.7% ORB rate). They certainly did on Friday night, vs. Toronto.

If they can do it vs. Boston on Sunday, it could lead to Brooklyn’s best win of the season. Realistically, this is a tall task vs. a team coming off a rare loss, facing an opponent who means juuust a bit more, while losing the injury report battle. A valiant loss that Nets fans can be proud of would be acceptable, if not a tad disappointing.

But it’s a sign of how Brooklyn has turned things around under Jacque Vaughn. From a 2-6 start, they’re a half-game out of the East’s 4-seed. They’re on a real win-streak for the first time all season, despite injuries. Yes, it’s all been at home and included some soft opponents, but you play who’s in front of you. The fact that a regular season match-up in early December is this exciting for purely basketball reasons can only make you smile. A month out from the peak of the chaos, that may sound melodramatic. But we really weren’t sure if we’d see these Nets get to this point in a regular season again. Sure, there’s still a lot of work to do. Brooklyn could - and is expected to - lose this one and drop to just a game over .500. KD is playing a boatload of minutes, carrying a boatload of weight on his shoulders. It still feels like the whole thing could combust at any moment.

But Sunday’s game is a damn exciting one. And that feels good to say.

From the Vault

So much to pick from. Celtics-Nets history, the Harris-Brogdon UVA connection, but let’s fill the air with great energy:

Never gets old.

For further reading, head to Celtics Blog. As excellently run and as blandly-titled as a blog covering the Celtics should be.