Celtics

3 Celtics with the most to gain from playing well in (probable) losing effort against Nets

The Celtics probably aren't going to beat the Brooklyn Nets in this series after falling down 2-0. But there's still plenty to play for, especially for a few key players.

Celtics Robert Williams
Robert Williams III. Corey Sipkin/AP
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Let’s be honest about the Boston Celtics’ chances after going down 2-0 to the Brooklyn Nets in their first-round playoff series.

Sure, the series is not technically over. The Celtics will have two games in Boston to get back on track, with Sunday’s game likely to be in front of a packed house.

But the first two games of this Round 1 slate suggest the talent gap between the teams is too significant to overcome. The Nets took a solid punch from the Celtics and rallied in Game 1 only to then blow their doors off in Game 2.

Barring Jayson Tatum channeling 2007 Kobe Bryant in the playoffs, it’s hard to see the Celtics winning four of the next five games.

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Yet there’s still something to be said for making a valiant effort (even if it’s a losing one) to close out the season. And a few players in particular could benefit more than others from putting up good minutes for as long as this series lasts.

Here are three Celtics with the most to gain from playing well regardless of how the Nets series turns out.

Robert Williams

Williams hasn’t lit the box score on fire through two games, but his hustle has been one of the few bright spots the Celtics have had in this series. His nine blocks in Game 1 and eight offensive rebounds in the first two matchups speak to the effort and energy he’s brought.

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Continuing to play at a high level, despite the seeming inevitably of this series, could pay off hugely for Williams’s future. Literally.

The fourth-year center is set to become a restricted free agent this offseason, and the Celtics would be mad not to try and keep him in-house.

When healthy, he’s proven himself a consistent defensive presence and lob threat. The question remains: can he become more on the offensive end?

The best thing Williams can do is continue making himself felt all over the court as long as this series continues. If he plays a sizable role in a win or two in this series against Brooklyn, his offseason payday might increase a bit — along with the Celtics’ respect for his value alongside their Big 3.

Evan Fournier

Danny Ainge has said he traded for Fournier at the deadline this year with the intention of trying to re-sign him in the offseason.

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After a slow start marred by recovery from COVID-19, Fournier showed massive improvement in May, shooting 54.6 percent from the field (including almost 57 percent from 3-point range) and averaging 19.9 points a game.

Adding him either to the starting lineup or the bench next season could dramatically increase the scoring punch and add another safety net in case one or more of the Big 3 struggles.

But re-signing Fournier won’t come without cost: bringing him back would likely mean either Marcus Smart or Kemba Walker has to go in order to keep the team’s luxury tax bill down.

The veteran guard can use the remainder of this series to make his case to stick around. What better way to do that than by helping spark a win against the vaunted Nets?

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If nothing else, perhaps his performance can serve as an audition for other teams if the Celtics won’t pay up.

Aaron Nesmith

The rookie guard made a strong impression in his first playoff game but didn’t do much in the Celtics’ blowout loss in Game 2 (though that could be said of a lot of people). He’s managed just five points (all from Game 1) and seven rebounds in 36 minutes of action.

It’s time to change that.

Whether his minutes come in garbage time or at points where the game is still in the balance, Nesmith has a valuable opportunity ahead of him against Brooklyn.

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The Celtics are dying for a spark on the defensive end, something Nesmith’s energy and hustle can certainly provide.

On top of that, he shouldn’t let his rough 1-for-10 start to the series (including 1-for-8 from 3-point land) take him out of the game offensively when he’s on the floor. He needs to shoot if he’s open and to attack the basket and offensive glass as he’s done during his best games this year.

A more assertive Nesmith is likely not going to change the outcome of this series. But a productive, more confident showing would be an excellent building block for the young guard heading into next season.

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