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A NetsDaily writers’ conversation about the tactics of Nets and Celtics

NetsDaily writers Matt Brooks and Alec Sturm, who’ve authored more than their share of film studies, take a joint examine what we can expect from Steve Nash and Ime Udoka.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

History has a funny way of repeating itself.

For the second-straight year, the Brooklyn Nets are lining up with the Boston Celtics in the first round, though this time the stakes are a little higher. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum power a Celtics 2-seed that plowed through the league with the NBA’s best defensive efficiency and a .739 winning percentage in 2022 that led the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn, meanwhile, could very well be the most dangerous 7-seed the NBA has had in quite some time, boasting two of the association’s most dangerous three-level scorers in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in a Nets season that’s largely been shaped by injury and COVID-19 absences.

In short, we could be looking at an all-timer.

To make sense of what should be an incredibly interesting tactical battle, I enlisted the help of my NetsDaily teammate, frequent podcast collaborator, and good friend, Alec Sturm.

Alec, first off, thanks for doing this with me. When you look at this matchup, what exploits should the Brooklyn Nets be looking to attack in Boston’s seemingly flawless armor?

Alec Sturm: The Celtics garnered league-wide attention for their run up the Eastern Conference standings in the second half of the year, but Boston’s defense has remained stellar all year under the watchful eye of former Nets assistant Ime Udoka. Boston’s calling card on that end has been their switching scheme, where stout defensive players Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams III and newcomer Derrick White (along with others) will seamlessly swap assignments without a crack in the foundation. Unfortunately for the C’s, Williams, aka the “Time Lord,” tore his meniscus on February 27th against Minnesota, a major blow to their defense. Should Boston continue their switching scheme, which they have in the regular season games since the injury, centers Al Horford and Daniel Theis will see more time on Brooklyn’s pick-and-roll ball-handlers.

One such ball-handler is Nets superstar Kevin Durant, who made easy work of the older, slower Horford in the regular season. KD’s two-step pull-up jumper can’t be stopped by any defender, but Horford is additionally to blow-bys on the perimeter when No. 7 has a step towards the basket.

Kyrie Irving didn’t have too many issues with the 35-year older center either.

What about you, Matt, where do you see the Nets creating advantages for themselves?

Matt Brooks: I’m going to echo your sentiments regarding attacking Boston’s double-big lineup; doing so not only gives Brooklyn the best opportunity to put points on the board, but it also forces the Celtics away from their identity.

I tend to look at playoff series from a matchup perspective and, well, that’s where things get a little complicated. Given his size, length, and athleticism, normally, it’d be prudent to have Kevin Durant—Brooklyn’s most lethal isolation defender—guarding Jayson Tatum. After all, that’s the direction Brooklyn went when these two teams met up last year in the postseason: Durant was by far Brooklyn’s most frequent Tatum defender with 179 partial possessions (the next-highest was James Harden with 41.4 partial possessions).

But when Brooklyn last played Boston on March 6, the Celtics’ double-big lineup (then Al Horford and Robert Williams) mucked up assignments. Here’s how Brooklyn matched up defensively.

  • Marcus Smart → Kyrie Irving
  • Jaylen Brown → Seth Curry
  • Jayson Tatum → Bruce Brown
  • Al Horford → Kevin Durant
  • Robert Williams/(Daniel Theis) → Andre Drummond

Brooklyn was forced to upshift its rotation because the Celtics boasted two bigs that could pressure the offensive glass on misses.

Kevin Durant was tasked with defending Al Horford rather than Tatum due to his size and rebounding talents (KD’s an 88th percentile defensive rebounder, per Cleaning the Glass). Bruce Brown, instead, guarded Jayson Tatum, who may just be a little too much of a handful for Brown due to his size and strength as a ball-handler. Tatum shot 57.1% from the field when defended by Brown this season, whereas he went just 4-for-12 (33.3%) against Durant.

Wrapping things up matchup-wise, Kyrie Irving defended Marcus Smart (which, fine, whatever) and Seth Curry was left to keep pace with Jaylen Brown, and that, ummmm, should make Nets fans a little queasy (I’d favor Bruce guarding Jaylen in a perfect world, personally).

Some odd matchups, right? It doesn’t really feel like Brooklyn was able to align its top defenders with Boston’s best scorers, no? Well, those are the pitfalls of Boston’s supersized lineup forcing Brooklyn into some uncomfortable decisions.

NOW, if Brooklyn can switch-hunt the living bejesus out of Boston’s bigs—as you pointed out above, Alec—in hopes of coercing Udoka into going away from playing two centers, THAT is a huge exploit for the Nets. Likely, this will entail a larger dosage of Grant Williams, and because he isn’t a giant threat to post-up mismatches nor really do anything outside of shoot threes from the corners, Brooklyn could throw out these defensive assignments and survive, at the very least:

  • Marcus Smart → Kyrie Irving
  • Jaylen Brown → Bruce Brown
  • Jayson Tatum → Kevin Durant
  • Grant Williams → … Seth Curry? Is this too crazy?
  • Daniel Theis/Al Horford → Andre Drummond

So, targeting Boston’s bigs isn’t just a way of creating easy offense; it also gives Brooklyn more palatable defensive assignments. Crazy, huh!

As for the Celtics, where can they find holes in Brooklyn’s defense?

AS: Well, I think the better question might be where can’t the Celtics find holes in Brooklyn’s defense. Since Kevin Durant has suited up in Black & White at the onset of the 2020-21 NBA season, the narrative surrounding the Nets has been that they’re an offensive juggernaut who give almost as many points on the other end — and justly so. The Nets ranked 21st in non-garbage time defensive rating this year, giving up 113.6 points per 100 possessions. The only postseason teams with worse marks? The slumping Chicago Bulls and Play-In Atlanta Hawks.

There is some reason for optimism. The Nets have ranked 13th in defensive rating since Durant’s return to the lineup on March 3rd, but that’s giving up 114.4 points per possession — an even worse mark than the year overall — so I would take those numbers with a grain of salt.

For the Celtics, they simply need to put initial pressure on Brooklyn and wait for the collapse. The best way to put the Nets in rotation is to generate downhill pressure, something the Celtics haven’t done very well this year; they’re 20th in the league in paint touches per game, according to NBA Stats.

The Nets’ point-of-attack defense has been porous at times, all but parting the Red Sea (Passover reference!) for opponents to drive into the lane.

Kyrie Irving does an excellent job displaying it in the example below, allowing Marcus Smart to simply mosey on by with a simple crossover. Meanwhile, Seth Curry isn’t built to bother drivers and Andre Drummond does little as a rim protector and is forced to foul.

In fact, let’s talk about Andre Drummond a bit. He and Nic Claxton have comprised Brooklyn’s center rotation as of late, with the two being significantly different stylistically but each productive in a team context.

Dre is a large body who will impose his will on the offensive glass and finish with force under the basket — when he’s not trying to be Magic Johnson on the fast break. Claxton is a nimble body; he can switch proficiently and stick with smaller players on the perimeter, but will sometimes get sent to the weight room down low and struggles to create his own offense.

To me, this series is better suited for Claxton. Drummond will often get burned when deep in drop coverage and doesn’t bring much as a switch defender either.

Even with Time Lord initially not available to make these flying alley-oop finishes, the Celtics can take advantage.

If the Nets can successfully wall off Boston from the paint, however, I’m bullish on their chances of holding up defensively. Newly minted full-time point guard Marcus Smart has impressed with his passing chops, but he is in the 19th percentile in Turnover Percentage (14.8%) for his position. Yikes. Once deterred from the paint, he is prone to bad, throw-away passes.

Alright Matt, that’s enough from me. What do you think Boston can do to take advantage of the Nets?

MB: Boston is the best Eastern Conference opponent outside of maybe Milwaukee at hunting mismatches on offense—finding those weak links that playoff defenses look to hide in the crevices of their creative defensive coverages.

I’ll keep it 100: This series will likely swing Boston’s way if they can successfully hunt Brooklyn’s smallest players with regularity. The Nets don’t just have one exploit like last season’s first-round (hello, Blake Griffin!); they now have three possible players that could get targeted repeatedly by Jayson Tatum, and to a lesser degree, Jaylen Brown: Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry, and Patty Mills (and if someone like LaMarcus Aldridge sees the floor, count him in as well).

The Celtics put Irving through the wringer during multiple second-quarter possessions of the most recent Boston-Brooklyn meetup. With Tatum handling in the first clip from the video below, Boston had Marcus Smart (originally defended by Kyrie) screen for his star forward to force the favorable switch of Irving on Tatum, and Tatum quickly took his former teammate to the hoop for the graceful push shot. A minute later, Boston put Irving in action yet again, though this time with Tatum screening and then popping to the top of the circle for an uncontested look after completely leaving Irving in the dust (Kyrie’s defense has been, man, a bit of an “oof” recently).

Irving wasn’t alone on Boston’s scouting report. Boston solidified its 126-120 victory by forcing Seth Curry to navigate screening actions involving Boston’s best two players, Tatum and Brown. Here’s a great example of Jayson Tatum setting a high pick-and-roll ball screen for Jaylen Brown and then dragging poor Seth to the nail to post him up. Tatum then faces up and drives away from the help of Bruce Brown for the pristine pull-up jumper.

So, with all of that out of the way, who do you have winning this series, Alec?

AS: This is tough, I won’t front. But I think I’ve got to go with Brooklyn. I think ultimately, the Celtics just won’t be able to match KD’s scoring output. The Nets have yet to prove that they can effectively flip the switch and become a postseason contender, but I’ve seen the same story play out too many times to bet against the talent now.

With that being said, the Nets can definitely lose this series in the details. KD and Kyrie aren’t an end-all-be-all, attention to detail must still be paid. Nets in 6 would be the easy answer, but I think we’re getting all the drama here. Brooklyn wins in seven games. Instant classic.

MB: Agreed. This feels like one of those series we’ll look back on in a couple of years and smile about, knock on wood. Ultimately, I have a really tough time betting against Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, who in my opinion are the best duo in the conference, especially when both players have fairly fresh legs. Durant’s mid-January knee sprain may have been a blessing in disguise, giving him some much-needed rest before what should be a pretty grueling playoff run. As for Kyrie? Well, we don’t really need to get into why he’s so refreshed, ha. What matters is that Brooklyn likely has two of the three best players in the series, both of whom appear to be peaking at the right time (still in utter disbelief at Kyrie’s play-in performance, sheesh). And more often than not, that’s what ultimately matters.

The loss of Robert Williams is really going to hurt Boston, and I do fear that Brooklyn forces the Celts into some pretty tough decisions regarding their frontcourt. Grant Williams is going to be absolutely crucial for Boston, and the farther Brooklyn can push Ime Udoka down his bench, the better. I know I normally get labeled as a Nets pessimist, but I have the Nets winning this one in 6.

If things end up going poorly for Brooklyn, you know who to blame.