Against all the logic telling them not to, the Boston Celtics secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference, setting up a box-office clash with the Brooklyn Nets as a result. In fairness, at the time, there was still a slim possibility Brooklyn would fall at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the play-in tournament, but that outcome never came to pass.
As such, the opening round of the playoffs will see a rematch between these two Eastern Conference powerhouses, and we can be certain that their performances will both bewitch and captivate audiences worldwide. Still, when two rosters of this magnitude do battle, picking a winner is a herculean task – especially when the regular season has done so little to shine any light on the subject.
Kyrie Irving was a part-time player until the final few weeks of the season, Kevin Durant spent time away from the team due to an MCL sprain, and James Harden has left town in a whirlwind divorce. For Boston, their treacherous start to the season made way for a fantastic end to the year, with the team ranking 1st in defensive rating and 9th in offensive rating on the season, placing them second only to the Phoenix Suns in net rating.
Of course, the playoffs mark the start of a new mini-season, and while we can learn lessons from the 82-game build up, we don’t have all the answers. Stars raise their games to elite levels, role players morph into studs, and coaches have intricate game plans, with every outcome accounted for. From opening tip, the chess battle is one, and the lights begin to shine brighter than at any point in the last 10 months.
However, while we’re not privy to the answers, we do have a firm grasp on the questions, and that’s what we will focus on as we look towards game one on April 17.
Regular Season Meetings
The Celtics have competed against the Nets on four occasions this season, winning three of them. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until that fourth and final game that we got any sort of preview of what might be to come. Both Boston and Brooklyn had injury issues to start the season, and for the most part, their early contests were decidedly one-sided due to health and availability. But still, we did get a glimpse of each team’s style of play.
Boston will look to disrupt passing lanes, get physical in the paint, and switch perimeter coverages at every opportunity. While the Nets will rely on Durant’s otherworldly scoring ability, with them running set after set to get their superstar curling or driving towards the middle of the floor. The notion behind sending Durant “middle” is that he has the entire court in front of him, allowing him to distribute the rock or make a scoring play within the flow of the offense. Of course, with Irving also in the fold, Brooklyn will look to penetrate off the dribble – primarily off pick-and-roles with shooters spaced around the court and Nicolas Claxton residing in the dunker spot to offer some athleticism and physicality around the rim.
Defensively, Brooklyn won’t offer much – their team is based on switching principles, but they lack an elite orchestrator to see them through the inevitable rough spells that a team like Boston will put them through. Importantly, any time Durant isn’t on the floor, the Nets look susceptible to giving up double-digit figures, and if they allow Boston through the door, there’s a good chance the roof gets blown off.
Both sides coming into this series with an X-Factor waiting to be unleashed, yet neither side are sure if said X-Factor will be ready to contribute before the second round, nor are they sure what level of impact said player could have.
Robert Williams has strung together an All-NBA Defensive First-Team caliber season this year, and is a metronome for the Celtics offense, especially in the short-roll. Of course, Williams’ greatest impact comes on the defensive end, where his free-safety role allows him freedom to roam and defend the rim.
Ben Simmons on the other hand, is an enigma. Having not played in almost 12 months, it’s hard to envision how he can be plugged into an entirely new roster and basketball philosophy while still making a positive impact. Simmons is a non-shooter who needs space to be at his best offensively, and while the Nets can provide that space, they’re unlike to take the ball out of Irving or Durant’s hands. That’s why, if Simmons does make his Brooklyn debut during the playoffs, you should expect him to operate as a screen and roll guy, rather than an offensive initiator. More importantly, Simmons rapidly improves the Nets defense, most notably on the perimeter, and could be the difference maker – especially in non-Durant minutes.
For reference, Cleaning The Glass list Durant as a +13 on/off rating, meaning the Nets are giving up 13 points per 100 possessions without the superstar on the floor. Simmons’ presence on the perimeter could help shore up that drop-off, after all, no matter what has been said about the former Sixers guard, he is still one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders.
If we operate under the assumption that both Boston and Brooklyn will run an eight-man rotation, we can begin to work out where each team holds an advantage. Of course, we’re far removed from the days of straight up man-to-man coverages, where point guards guard other point guards and so forth, but that doesn’t stop us diving into the narrative.
Marcus Smart vs. Kyrie Irving – Winner = Kyrie Irving
Jaylen Brown vs. Seth Curry – Winner = Jaylen Brown
Jayson Tatum vs. Kevin Durant – Winner = Kevin Durant
Daniel Theis vs. Bruce Brown – Winner = Bruce Brown
Al Horford vs Nicolas Claxton/Andre Drummond – Winner = Al Horford
Derrick White vs. Patty Mills – Winner = Derrick White
Grant Williams vs. Cam Thomas – Winner = Grant Williams
Payton Pritchard vs. Goran Dragic – Winner = Goran Dragic
Boston = 4
Nets = 4
As we can see, both teams hold an impactful advantage in different areas, and both will come into the series holding a four-four tie in positional impact. However, when you peel another layer off, things begin to look far different.
Boston’s roster is comprised of two-way performers, with the exception of Pritchard. Brooklyn’s rotation is based on offensive skill, with little in the way of defensive upside (as noted above, Simmons helps here.) When it comes to the playoffs, and the action is slowed down somewhat, having guys who can perform to a high-level on both sides of the floor is always desired, that’s why single-skilled players such as catch-and-shoot specialists find their minutes limited as a team progresses deeper into the post-season.
As such, despite breaking even on matchups, we have to give the overall advantage to the Celtics, because their roster is deeper in two-way talent, and leans heavily towards play-off basketball.
The Celtics are built for this type of scenario – facing elite offensive competition who rely on primary ball-handlers with little in the way of secondary and tertiary creation. That being said, you can never count out a team that has a transcendent talent such as Durant on their roster, and that is the biggest mitigating factor here.
Without Durant, you are looking at a gentleman’s sweep for the Celtics, with Durant, Brooklyn has the talent and scope to push this series all the way to a game seven, at which point, anybody can make it through to the next round. That outcome will be at the forefront of the Celtics minds and should act as a thruster to how the approach this series.
As such, Boston in six is both a reasonable and logical outcome. Durant can’t play every minute of every game, and when he sits, the Celtics will swarm, so, unless Simmons comes back and makes some form of impact, we’re looking at a 4-2 victory for Boston and lots of questions being levied towards the Nets throughout the off-season.