Celtics

6 thoughts on the Celtics ahead of their first-round series against the Nets

The odds of an upset are slim, but there are a few ways the Celtics can make the series interesting.

Jayson Tatum will likely have to outduel Kyrie Irving in order for the Celtics to defeat the Nets. Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Six thoughts on the Celtics while wondering if they have it in them to play up to the level of an opponent after playing down to one so often this season…

1. Common sense suggests the Nets should wipe out the Celtics with relative ease now that Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving will all be on the court at the same time while the Celtics will be without Jaylen Brown. The talent matchup is lopsided, and it’s not like the Celtics have been able to lean on toughness or resilience with any consistency this season to get them through their various valleys. Good thing I only fleetingly dabble in common sense, because since Jayson Tatum dropped 50 on the Wizards Tuesday night, I’ve talked myself into three ways the Celtics can make this interesting. No, I don’t think they can win the series. But I think they can hint at it, and remind the Nets that they’re a collection of great talent, but not yet a great team.

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2. First, Brad Stevens’s teams have often been at their best when they’re underdogs, or outright underestimated. Think of the ’17 team that Isaiah Thomas led to the Eastern Conference Finals, or the ’18 team that took the Cavs to seven games in the conference finals the next year despite losing Gordon Hayward in the season-opener and Kyrie Irving along the way, or even last year’s final four entry in the bubble. This is an opportunity for the coach, maligned this year for the first time in his Celtics career, to empty out the playbook and get super-creative while emphasizing a nothing-to-lose mindset with his team. I’ll say this: Steve Nash has the better soldiers, but Stevens is a savvier general. Even if (OK, when) the Celtics lose this series, I bet the fanbase feels better about the coach after it’s over.

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3. I also think Kemba Walker is being underestimated entering this series. His inability to play back-to-backs – or the team’s extreme caution in deciding to handle his knee problems that way – was a major factor in the Celtics’ lack of consistency this year. One night, he’s a high-usage player taking 18-20 shots, and the next night he’s on the bench. It’s not really anyone’s fault, but just isn’t tenable when you’re trying to build chemistry. There are no back-to-backs now, and it’s gone mostly unnoticed with so much else going on, but Walker has been very good recently. Over his final seven games, going back to the April 17 win over the Warriors, he’s averaging 28.1 points per game on 50.1 percent shooting, including 42.6 percent from 3. What if how they handled him is about to pay off now?

4. And that third reason? Well, Tatum, obviously. He’s the all-time Play-In Tournament single-game record holder for points, which should totally count on his playoff or regular-season record, but for some weird reason doesn’t. He was phenomenal against the Wizards, and it wasn’t just because he scored seemingly at will and in a dozen different ways. He played hard on defense. He shared the ball early, almost too much (he set up a couple of Marcus Smart misses in the first quarter). He singlehandedly broke the spirit of the Wizards, who seemed to begin game-planning for the Pacers early in the fourth quarter if not sooner. He can’t match Durant, Harden, and Irving offensively, but he can go shot-for-shot with any of them for stretches. Tatum has to be at his best at all times in this series. The last time we saw him, he was as good as he has ever been.

5. I understand why the Celtics traded Daniel Theis at the deadline, but they sure could use him now to help fill their void in the middle. I have no idea how to evaluate Robert Williams III at this point – he’s a joy to watch when he’s healthy, he gets easy buckets, he still roams when he wants to on defense, and he just can’t stay on the court. If only the Celtics could sneak Theis into a Luke Kornet jersey somehow. By the way, Theis’s stats with the Bulls (10.0 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game, 1.8 assists per game) ended up looking pretty similar to his 2020-21 Boston numbers (9.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.6 apg). One major difference: He averaged almost one less foul per game with the Bulls. I’m convinced: The “War on Theis” – the term Celtics fans used on social media to describe officials’ rapid-fire whistles on him – was real, and maybe even regional.

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6. Anyone who thinks the Celtics fans should go easy on Kyrie Irving apparently didn’t watch the Bucks series in 2019, when the Celtics lost in five and Irving played like he was mad it wasn’t over in four. No need to be vulgar or personal in the boos, but he’s been dodging Boston since he bolted for Brooklyn, and few visiting athletes deserve to have their eardrums rattled as much as he does.

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