By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The general consensus around the NBA — and even (mostly?) in Boston — is that the Celtics stand absolutely no shot against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the NBA playoffs. It’s understandable, considering the Nets are a ridiculously talented team led by a ridiculously talented trio, and the Celtics were one of the most inconsistent and disappointing teams during the regular season.
Then there’s the whole matter of Boston’s inability to beat Brooklyn during the regular season, dropping all three matchups against the Nets. Add in the fact that the Celtics will be without one of their two best players in Jaylen Brown, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the green team heading into the matchup.
The hope is that the Celtics will at least make it a competitive series. That’s really all we’re asking for, and after a convincing play-in win over the Wizards that saw Jayson Tatum drop 50 points for the third time this season, there is at least some hope that wish will come true. As good as the Nets are — and they are really good — the odds are against them winning seven straight against the same team without that other team at least sneaking out one W of their own. The law of averages says… well we don’t really know what they says for this instance, but it’s at least somewhat realistic to think the C’s will win at least one game instead of going 0-for-7 against Brooklyn this year. (Though with this Celtics team, Murphy’s Law is much more fitting.)
A lot will have to go right for the Celtics to win even one game. As Brad Stevens said following Tuesday’s playoff-for-the-playoffs win, the Celtics are going to have to play perfect — and do so together — to have any shot against the Nets. But as we know in basketball, it’s based on individual matchups, and those are going to be incredibly intriguing over the next 2-3 weeks.
Tatum vs. Durant
This is it. This is THE matchup. We really don’t have to say much about it. Just sit back and enjoy it.
Durant is not human when it comes to his ability to play the sport of basketball, making the extraordinary look incredibly easy. Tatum is also pretty good, and he’s going to have to be Durant-level good for Boston to stand a chance. (Again, stand a chance means making it competitive.)
Tatum will probably have to have another 50-point game or two for Boston. Durant, really, just has to be himself, and even then he can probably coast a bit thanks to all the talent surround him. Let’s hope he doesn’t, because watching Durant is a treat for everyone.
Kemba vs. Kyrie
Yeah, we have to go here. And this seemed inevitable to happen at some point when Irving bolted for Brooklyn two summers ago. He’s now set to play against his former team on the big stage that he wanted.
Kemba Walker was welcomed with open arms and giant smiles when he took over for Irving. Their personalities couldn’t be any different. And while Kryie is the far superior player, Walker brought a much more jovial feel to the Celtics.
Unfortunately, health has kept him from being Kemba for much of this season. The good news is he finally looks like he’s close to that high level of play. He had a strong finish to the season (when he played) and he had a great game against the Wizards with 29 points off 10-for-24 shooting. He’s got that burst back, albeit not at the level he had just a few years ago when he was outpricing himself for the Hornets. Defense has never been his strong suit, but maybe he can keep Irving in front of him when the two find themselves matched up against each other.
Not that it really matters with Irving, who can do anything from anywhere on the floor. He is truly one of the most gifted three-level players, a threat from deep with a great midrange game and an absolute magician when he attacks the basket. It’s easy to see why he doesn’t always believe in science, because what he can do with a basketball constantly goes against the laws of nature, physics and everything in between.
He also loves to play against the Celtics. Irving went for 37-6-8 in an empty TD Garden on Christmas Day (a few days after he saged the place to get rid of that all bad juju) and then dropped 40 points and eight rebounds in Boston’s first visit to Brooklyn, scoring 22 in the second half of another Nets blowout.
Even when he was held to 15 points on 4-for-19 shooting — missing all six of his three-point attempts — in April, Irving still got his teammates involved and dished out 11 assists as the Nets beat the Celtics 109-104.
Overall, Irving is 8-1 against the Celtics during his postseason career. Hopefully the fan above leaves that sign at home this time around.
Smart vs. Harden
This is where the Celtics are really going to miss Jaylen Brown. The first-time All-Star could have matched up with Harden, letting Smart try his hand with Kyrie. Instead, Smart is going to have to play Harden, which he has done a decent job with in the past. A few key offensive charges come to mind.
While Smart got the best of Harden over those final few seconds three years ago (feels like a decade ago, doesn’t it?), and even though the Beard shot just 7-for-27, he still finished with 34 points thanks mostly to his 15 free throws. Keeping him off the line will be paramount for Boston this series.
And Marcus, please please please please please don’t try to match Harden shot for shot. We want to be entertained, just not like that.
Robert Williams vs. His Toe
There is always so much promise with Robert Williams. But there is also so much hurting with Robert Williams. We’ll see if he can play this series due to a lingering turf toe injury that he aggravated in the first half against the Wizards.
No Bob would really stink for the Celtics, cause they could use a last line of defense against Brooklyn’s talented slashers.
Stevens vs. Nash
It hasn’t been a good season for Brad, and he’s been under a ton of fire since he was completely outcoached by Erik Spoelstra in the Conference Finals back in the NBA Bubble. It’d be nice if he could draw up a play or 20 that really help the Celtics steal some wins over the next few weeks. He isn’t going anywhere, but it’d be best if he could at least head into next season on the highest of low notes possible in a series against one of the league’s best teams.
He’ll be matching wits with a rookie head coach in Steve Nash, who has done a great job keeping some of the NBA’s most combustible egos in check over one of the more difficult seasons in history. When it seemed like Kyrie was about to quit on the team early on, and then when Durant was in and out of the lineup with injuries and close COVID contacts, and then when Harden missed a truckload of time at the end of the year, the Nets still kept on rolling.
Nash has had so many different lineups to juggle, yet they still managed to go 48-24 and earn the two-seed. He’s been able to find suitable roles and keep everyone not named Irving, Durant or Harden happy, and he’s been able to keep everyone motivated throughout. He’s been a master at picking his spots when to call out the team.
The playoffs are a different animal, at least they will be in the near future. Nash really doesn’t have to do much in-game, and he won’t have to make many adjustments against the Celtics.
The Nets vs. The Nets
This isn’t an individual matchup, or really a matchup at all. But you’ve made it this far, so why not hit the finish line?
We’ve been waiting for the bubble to burst all season; for Durant to activate that burner account or Kyrie to disappear (again). Yet here they are, with a legit shot to win a title, and do it together in harmony. Perhaps adversity will get the best of them at some point, but it seems unlikely. It seems even more unlikely that it will come against a Boston team that may offer them very little resistance.