First-round preview: Can Jayson Tatum and the Celtics slow Kyrie Irving and the Nets?

The Celtics take on one of the best teams in the East.

Jayson Tatum will need to have a huge series against the Nets for the Celtics to have a chance. Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

As a reward for defeating the Wizards in the play-in game, the Celtics now get to face one of the toughest teams in the Eastern Conference: The Nets featuring James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant.

Here’s what to watch for as the Celtics’ postseason run begins.

The Basics

The series tips off at 8 p.m. Saturday on ABC. Game 2 will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday on TNT and NBC Sports Boston before the series shifts to Boston on Friday (8:30 p.m.) and Sunday (7 p.m.) for Games 3 and 4.

The Health Report

  • Celtics guard Jaylen Brown is out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his wrist.
  • Celtics center Robert Williams is still “really sore” per Brad Stevens after hyperextending his toe against the Wizards. Williams didn’t practice Friday and is expected to be a game-time decision for Saturday.
  • Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie is still recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee.

Relevant Quotes

Durant on the Celtics: “We got our work cut out for us. We respect this team. Jaylen Brown is injured, one of their key pieces, but they still rally around each other and play extremely hard.”


Durant on potentially guarding Jayson Tatum: “When it comes to one-on-one situations, try to stay in between my man and try to get a good contest on shots … but also be there for my teammates when I’m not on the ball.”

Harden on Tatum: “He scores in bunches and scores from all over the court. … It’s got to be a team effort. We have to know where he is on the floor. As we get deeper into our scouting, we’ve got to know where he likes the ball, what’s his go-tos and kind of limit that, and it’s going to take five guys on the court.”


Tatum on facing Durant after looking up to him as a kid: “I think it’s pretty cool. I went to his camp when I was like a freshman or so. I always envisioned when I took pictures with those guys that one day I would be in their shoes.”

Stats to Know

118.6: Number of points the Nets averaged per game.

114.1: Number of points Nets opponents averaged per game.

27-7: The Celtics’ record when they scored 114 points or more.

5-19: The Celtics’ record when they gave up 118 points or more.

5-8: The Celtics’ record when they scored more than 114 points and gave up more than 118 points.


37.5 percent: What Tatum shot against the Nets in 25 minutes with Durant on the floor this season, per the NBA’s stats.

54.5 percent: What Tatum shot against the Nets in 85 minutes without Durant on the floor this season, per the NBA’s stats.

11.1: How many points (per 100 possessions) by which the Nets outscored opponents this season with Harden, Durant, and Irving on the floor. It’s good for the 95th percentile league-wide.

Previous Meetings

The Nets went 3-0 against the Celtics.

On Christmas Day, before Brooklyn traded for Harden, the two teams met for the first time. Led by Irving (37 points, 7-for-10 from 3-point range, eight assists) and Durant (29 points), the Nets demolished the Celtics 72-41 in the second half to pull away for a 123-95 win.

On March 11, Irving dropped 40 points, and Harden came up two assists short of a triple-double (22-10-8) as the Nets once again pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 121-109 win despite Tatum’s 31 points.


On April 23, Harden and Durant sat out with injuries as the Celtics and Nets met for the last time. Irving shot just 4-for-19, and Tatum poured in 38, but Brooklyn claimed a 109-104 victory.

What the Celtics said about facing Kyrie Irving

Game 3 will mark the first time Irving plays in Boston in front of Celtics fans since he left in free agency following the disastrous 2018-19 campaign.

Brad Stevens: “Kyrie’s had an amazing year. And he was amazing here. He was second-team All-NBA his second year and probably would have been first or second-team his first year had he not gotten hurt and then missed the last 20 percent or 25 percent of the season.


“He is a super special player with a really good heart. Certainly, I don’t have anything negative to say at all. He’s a guy that puts you on your heels when you’re playing against him, and certainly has impacted winning in so many ways everywhere he’s been.”

Tatum: “We played here together for two seasons and got to see his work ethic every day up close, in person. So that was pretty special to see just my first and second year in the league.”

Assistant coach Jerome Allen (to the Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach): “I don’t think Kyrie had any malicious intent to try to deceive or manipulate the situation. It’s just that sometimes those things happen.

“I work for the Celtics, but the bottom line is I wanted for him the things that were going to make him happy, and if leaving was going to make him happy and if the relationship is genuine, then you support that. That’s what I tried to stand on. Would I have loved for him to stay? Yeah, he’s a generational talent. But ultimately, that wasn’t my call, and I wanted what was best for him.”

Why the Nets could win

The Nets are heavily favored, and understandably so. Their trio of stars hasn’t played together much — just eight games total — but the sheer volume of talent is reminiscent of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, or even the Miami Heat earlier in the decade.

When Irving, Harden, and Durant share the court, the Nets score a staggering 123.2 points per 100 possessions and force a lot of uncomfortable decisions. How do you choose which superstar to try to limit? If you manage to limit them all for a possession, what do you do about Joe Harris, one of the best shooters in the NBA?

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has stocked its roster around that trio with good role players. Blake Griffin took a pay (and role) cut to chase a ring. Jeff Green emerged as a highly useful tweener. Landry Shamet offers sharp-shooting off the bench. Boston native Bruce Brown is a perfect defensive-minded presence alongside the Celtics’ stars.

On the other side, the Celtics are (of course) without Jaylen Brown. Per the NBA’s matchup stats, Brown spent more time guarding both Harden and Irving than any other Celtics player.

Why the Celtics could win

The Nets have the second-worst defensive rating of any team who made the postseason or the play-in game. Only the Portland Trail Blazers (29th) were worse.

As the season wound down, the Nets looked uninspired. The playoffs will presumably re-infuse them with some energy, but perhaps the lack of continuity between Durant, Harden, and Irving will matter.

The Celtics are better with Brown, but Tatum’s role is now simplified. He is the team’s lone superstar, and he has an opportunity to dominate everything: The games, the possessions, the narrative, etc.

Kemba Walker has looked excellent in recent weeks.

All that said, the Celtics have an incredibly difficult task ahead.

“Those guys are the best of the best,” Brad Stevens said. “I’m a general fan of the NBA, and I have a hard time seeing them lose. So we’re going to have to play great.”

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