Nets-Celtics playoff preview: Can Boston be more than a tune-up for Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving?

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Entering their first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets’ mighty trio — to be clear, I am referring to James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, not this mighty trio —  have played only 202 minutes together. That is 23 fewer minutes than Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen shared in Nets uniforms this season. It is nine fewer minutes than Taurean Prince played for Brooklyn this season. It is 182 fewer minutes than Todd MacCulloch played for the Nets in the 2002 playoffs. 

This, in the words of Blake Griffin, who has played next to Harden for just 84 minutes — 24 fewer than he’s logged with Mike James — is “not ideal.” Ever the optimist, though, Griffin pointed out Brooklyn is entering the playoffs healthy, which is always “a win.” He also said that the IQ of the Big 3 makes the game easy for everybody else, so the Nets will “try to lean on that.”

They can also lean on their massive talent advantage. If you haven’t watched Boston since last year’s playoffs, then you might be surprised to see Evan Fournier, Aaron Nesmith, Tristan Thompson, Payton Pritchard and Luke Kornet are getting the minutes that would have previously gone to Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Daniel Theis, Brad Wanamaker and Enes Kanter. (Don’t panic: Brown is still a Celtic. He’s just out for the season, recovering from wrist surgery.)

Talent, however, is not everything. Just ask Brooklyn coach Steve Nash, who ran point for teams that had some of the best chemistry of all-time and some of the absolute worst.

“By no means do I look at this and go, ‘Oh, we’re so talented, we’re just going to roll out there and win games,'” Nash said. “You know in the playoffs, details matter. You know connectivity, you know cohesion matters. Teams are going to throw a lot of different stuff at us, try to slow us down, try to make it difficult, try to give us different reads, and we gotta be able adapt and adjust.”

Nash said that, throughout the playoffs, the Nets will be learning. They’ll be trying to make all the pieces “fit together with fluidity and understanding.” They will also, at least for a little while, be extremely focused on slowing down Jayson Tatum. In Boston’s last game, a 118-100 victory over the Washington Wizards for which it earned the prize of this daunting matchup, Tatum scored 50 points. Three weeks ago, he scored 60. 

Positions are more or less meaningless these days, but Nash called the 6-foot-8 Tatum “a big guard, so to speak,” because of “the way he handles the ball and is able to shoot at all three levels, use his size inside or outside to shoot over people.” While Durant is the most natural defensive matchup for Tatum, Brooklyn switches so much that the first line of defense isn’t necessarily the most important thing. 

“As much as anything, it’s about concentration,” Nash said. “Not giving him the easy ones, not making simple mistakes. And that comes from a team effort. Getting back and matched up in transition. Making sure we’re there in support at all times.”

For the Nets, dealing with Tatum and Kemba Walker running high pick-and-rolls should serve as a good tune-up. If Boston is going to make this interesting, it must get those guys going, capitalize when they draw help, limit turnovers, get back in transition, dominate the glass, contest Brooklyn’s jump shots and avoid fouling. A little luck wouldn’t hurt, either. 

Schedule: 2. Nets vs. 7. Celtics

All times Eastern

  • Game 1: Saturday, May 22, 8 p.m. | ABC
  • Game 2: Tuesday, May 25, 7:30 p.m. | TNT
  • Game 3: Friday, May 28, 8:30 p.m. | ABC
  • Game 4: Sunday, May 30, 7 p.m. | TNT
  • Game 5*: Tuesday, June 1, TBD | TBD
  • Game 6*: Thursday, June 3, TBD | TBD
  • Game 7*: Saturday, June 5, TBD | TBD

*If necessary

1. Hey man, nice shot

If Celtics coach Brad Stevens has one major message about competing with a superteam, it is this: At least make them beat you. If you get discouraged or distracted when the Nets’ superstars make crazy shots, you have no chance. 

“There will be some tip-your-cap moments,” Stevens said, “where you’re going to have to [say] ‘nice shot’ and go down the other end and score.”

This is also about executing with precision. “Your offensive possessions have to be very purposeful,” Stevens said, because Boston can’t afford to waste them. If you throw away a handful of consecutive possessions, “that becomes a 12-0 run really quickly.” 

The Celtics’ offensive flow as waxed and waned over the course of a wacky regular season that has been particularly weird for them. When they recorded 25 assists or more, they went 23-6. When they didn’t, they went 13-30. Brooklyn’s switch-heavy defense is designed to shut down an opponent’s ball movement, and Boston needs to find ways to counteract that. That can mean hunting mismatches, slipping screens or simply continuing to run their stuff so there are more opportunities for the defense to make a mistake. 

In the regular season, the Celtics were 25th in attempts at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. That in itself isn’t damning, but in that it’s a reflection of their difficulty putting pressure on opponents’ interior defense, it might be. The good news here is that the Nets aren’t the most physically imposing defensive team, but the bad news is they’ve been pretty good at protecting the rim anyway. 

A bit of that is because of DeAndre Jordan’s, the team’s lone “traditional” center, but collectively Brooklyn has had plenty of practice shutting down driving lines, scramming out of mismatches and sending help when it can’t do so. Boston’s best bet is taking advantage of Jordan in drop coverage, and if the Nets don’t put him in the rotation, then it will need to grab enough offensive rebounds so they have no choice. 

Which brings us to …

2. ‘We’re not the best rebounding team, but …’

Nash called limiting Thompson’s offensive rebounds a “priority.” Nets big Nicolas Claxton called Thompson a “menace” on the glass. Griffin said they’d have to “match his physicality and his energy.” This has been a subject of conversation because Boston was the third-best offensive rebounding team in the league, grabbing 28.9 percent of its misses, and Brooklyn ranked 23rd in defensive rebounding percentage. 

“We’re not the best rebounding team, but by committee we can be,” Griffin said. “So sitting down and getting stops and then finishing those stops with a rebound and not giving them extra shots is huge.”

The Nets play lots of small lineups featuring Jeff Green or Griffin at center, and their switches often leave bigs out on the perimeter rather than battling under the boards. Harden and Bruce Brown are great rebounders for their size, though, and, as awesome as Brooklyn is in transition, it will not be looking for leak-outs in this series. The player who boxes out Thompson is not necessarily going to be the player who gets his hands on the ball. 

“Everybody has to come back in,” Griffin said. “It’s not just having a mismatch down low. If there’s a great offensive rebounding team, everybody has to come back in ’cause, a lot of the time, those guys will tip ’em out.”

One of those guys is Robert Williams III, who finished fourth in individual offensive rebounding percentage in the regular season. Unfortunately for the Celtics, Williams has turf toe, didn’t practice Thursday, likely won’t Friday and is considered day-to-day. They need him healthy for his rebounding, not to mention his vertical spacing and passing. 

There is lineup uncertainty on Brooklyn’s side, too, by virtue of its roster construction. Nash didn’t tip his hand as to whether or not Jordan will be in the rotation, saying only that all the bigs will share minutes. Claxton is essentially a rookie, and the Nets need to get him playoff reps without overexposing him. Griffin has already warned Claxton that the game is about to get significantly more physical, and Nash doesn’t expect him to be perfect. 

“If he plays hard and uses his length and athleticism and his activity, he’s OK, we can allow him to make some mistakes,” Nash said. “Our team should be good enough to allow him to make some inexperienced plays and still have an impact on the game because of his profile.”

3. Challenge everything 

Brooklyn’s sheer firepower can overwhelm opponents, particularly when it is piling up easy points in transition and at the free throw line. When Stevens repeatedly stressed the significance of execution, he was talking about defense, too. No team allowed fewer transition opportunities than the Celtics two years ago, and last season they had the best transition defense in the league, according to CTG, but this season they were average in this respect. That is nowhere near good enough against one of the most terrifying transition teams you could possibly imagine. 

“You’re going to have to challenge everything,” Stevens said. “You’re going to have to take care of the basketball, you’re going to have to sprint to take away any easy transition baskets, you’re going to have to take away easy baskets on cuts and rebounds. Because if they are able to add up a number of easy baskets that way, through their motor and energy and a lack of playing the right way on our part, then … all those other shots that they make become too much to overcome.”

The Nets force defenses to make impossible decisions. Joe Harris, who shot a league-best 47.5 percent from 3-point range, saw no daylight against the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs two years ago. The Sixers top-locked him, so he couldn’t find his normal looks off screens, and they stayed glued to him at all times. If Boston does something like that now, with Harris surrounded by some of the best scorers in league history, it will come with painful trade-offs. 

“I’m sure they don’t want to give him any free looks,” Nash said. “He’s one of the best shooters in our game. Having said that, it’s a little trickier when you have three guys out there that can break the defense down. That’s the beauty of our team.”

If Brown were healthy, then, between him, Tatum and Marcus Smart, the Celtics would have as good a shot at anybody at containing Brooklyn’s stars one-on-one. There is always a balance to be struck with help defense, but Stevens would ideally like to stay out of rotation as much as possible. The Nets’ role players have spent the whole season exploiting the extra attention that Durant, Harden and Irving demand.

“You’re going to have to decide as a team are you going to challenge and make it as difficult as possible or are you going to scramble all over the place?” Stevens said. “And they’ll take advantage of you scrambling all over the place, so I think you have to pick your spots wisely.”

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