The Brooklyn Nets and the Boston Celtics will, once again, face each other in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The first-round series matchup will look far different than last year, and the seventh-seeded Nets know what the keys to advancing are. And it starts with Jayson Tatum.
The Nets crushed the second-seeded Celtics in last year’s first-round series, breezing by Boston in only five games (4-1). The same can’t be said about their regular season series this season. The Celtics cruised to a 3-1 advantage. Although Boston had the upper hand, neither team was able to get a clean look at each other’s best.
The first three meetings featured an unbalanced and injury-riddled look of how the two teams match up against each other. James Harden and Kevin Durant played while Kyrie Irving and Al Horford didn’t in the first meeting. The Nets put out a depleted roster in the second matchup, which resulted in a 35-point defeat. Not one member of the Brooklyn’s “Big Three’ played. The same circumstances held true in their third meeting only a few weeks later.
The closest the two Eastern Conference teams got to playing at full-strength was their final meeting. It was a scoring duel between Durant and Tatum, with the Celtics’ 24-year-old winning that matchup by a scoring margin of 54 to 37. On top of Tatum’s awesome performance (34 second-half points), Boston’s supporting cast stepped up and outplayed Brooklyn’s supporting cast. Irving had only 19 and while Bruce Brown (16) and LaMarcus Aldridge (14) combined for 30 points. In the end, the Celtics escaped with a six-point win on their home floor.
“We have a different team. I’m really impressed with the Celtics, and the job Ime [Udoka] has done.” Steve Nash said, once again noting the importance of continuity, a season-long theme for the head coach. “They’ve been able to build on that continuity and that group has been together for quite a while. They made some tweaks and adjustments that have really improved their team on both ends of the floor.
“It’ll be a great challenge for us, For a new group to play a team like that’s terrific on both ends is going to be something that hopefully brings out the best in us.”
Despite getting only one clean look at how these two teams match up against each other, it’s crucial for the Nets to slow down Boston’s star, who is entering superstardom. It is one of, if not, the major key for Brooklyn. And the players know it.
“Starts with slowing J.T. down. He has a great feel playing against us and everyone else around is very complementary when JT is getting doubled,” Irving said. “I know that team very well and they know us very well. It’ll be a back-and-forth, and once you throw that ball in the air, you’re going to see some spectacular basketball. I’m looking forward to it.”
Tatum played in all four matchups. Beyond that 54-point explosion, Brooklyn knows the star can put up very similar scoring numbers on the playoff hardwood, and they’ve seen it before. He torched the Nets for 50 points to lead Boston to a Game 3 win in last year’s first-round series. He shot an efficient 16-of-30 from the field in that contest. Although Durant and Irving have combined for a franchise-record five 50+ point games this season, none of them came against the Celtics.
“We can’t let Tatum get 50,” Bruce Brown said. “We have to be physical with him.” That’s an admission they weren’t in the regular season.
Brown registered the most time guarding Tatum. In the three games the Nets ‘swiss-army knife’ defended the Celtics star, he “held” him to 57.1 percent shooting from the field in 47.8 partial possessions, per NBA Advanced Stats.
Durant limited Tatum to 33.3 percent shooting in 45.7 partial possessions across only two games. Tatum finished the season-series posting averages of 29.5 points, and over his career, he’s scored 22.1 points per game against the Nets. If Simmons were to return later in the series, he’d certainly get a crack against the Celtics star.
So how can the Nets slow him down on the offensive end? When Durant was asked that question after Brooklyn’s regular-season finale, the Nets star couldn’t provide a blueprint to the question many teams have unsuccessfully fulfilled.
“Sh*t, that’s a tough question,” Durant said. “He’s one of those players where you’ve just got to play hard and see what happens. He’s so talented, skilled, and efficient with what he does. We just got to play hard, and I expect us to.”
In a series filled with narratives — highlighted by Brooklyn’s offense against Boston’s defense, Irving “scorned” relationship with the Celtics and pending returns of Simmons and Celtics big man, Robert Williams — it’s likely to be ... eventful.
Durant was asked what it’s going to take to handle business in the first-round. He laid out what he though was going to be the foundation.
“Staying disciplined, staying together, and playing with passion,” Durant said. “I don’t have the schemes or the strategy to break it down to you but that’s what every team has the bring if you want to win in the postseason. That discipline is huge for us.”