Celtics vs. Nets: 8 things to watch in first round matchup

The Celtics and Nets will once again face off in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Celtics Nets
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum makes a three over Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving. Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

For the second consecutive year, the Celtics and Nets will face each other in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs after the Nets handled their business against the Cavaliers in the play-in game on Tuesday.

The Celtics could be excused if they were hoping for the Cavaliers — a beat-up group of young players that still seems to be a year or two away from making real noise in the postseason. Instead, they get to face old friends Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — a brutal draw for a team that climbed back into contention as the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference.


Still, the Celtics have plenty of reason for optimism. Here are eight notes from a deep dive into film and stats.

1. There aren’t many useful analytics from head-to-head matchups this season. The Celtics beat the Nets when both teams had their full rosters in March. They crushed the Nets when all of their best players were out twice. They lost to the Nets by a healthy margin early in the season.

At the risk of being accused of cherry-picking in the Celtics’ favor, the early-season result can probably be thrown out unless the Celtics re-acquire Dennis Schröder and start playing terrible basketball again. At the risk of being accused of cherry-picking in the Nets’ favor, they were trying to integrate their full lineup when they faced the Celtics in March.

In short, we’re saying don’t look too closely at the Celtics’ +12 net rating against the Nets.

2. We wrote about how the Celtics attacked Kyrie Irving utilizing Jayson Tatum in their last matchup on March 6 — a 126-120 Celtics victory — but a closer look at the film reveals how the Celtics attacked Irving on nearly every possession. The Celtics were systematic in their approach. If Irving was guarding Marcus Smart, the Celtics ran Smart through a pick-and-roll. When Irving inevitably got hung up on the first or second screen, they moved the ball and found the weak point.


Irving also hurts the Nets with his defensive decision-making. Celtics fans may remember his inexplicable decision to freelance defensively onto Giannis Antetokounmpo during the first round of the 2018-19 playoffs. Irving still has that tendency — he’s far too willing to switch and allow a mismatch that prevents the Nets from mitigating his shortcomings through a defensive scheme.

When Irving went out against the Celtics in March, the Nets still had defensive liabilities on the floor — the next target on the perimeter was Seth Curry, but they were equally happy to punish opposing bigs, since the Nets aren’t very versatile.

3. The series may be decided by the mismatches the Celtics are able to exploit. Those mismatches form in a variety of ways, but — to no one’s surprise — they usually start with Jayson Tatum.

“I mean, we can’t let Tatum get 50,” Bruce Brown said Tuesday — a now-forgotten quote, since he followed it by noting that the Nets can attack the paint against Horford and Theis (more on that in a minute).

Brown is right, but that’s easier said than done. The Nets can double-team Tatum, but their defense breaks down pretty quickly when they do that. They can trap him, but Tatum’s passing has spiked to somewhere between “very good” and “great” and he’s only getting better.


Brown himself — one of the Nets’ best defenders — is too small to defend Tatum, and the Celtics screened him out of the play pretty effectively. Durant might be able to match up with Tatum 1-on-1, but the Nets are going to need 35ish points per game from Durant to have a chance against the Celtics. Is that feasible?

Meanwhile, other matchup nightmares abound. Who does Irving guard? Jaylen Brown isn’t viable for obvious reasons. Irving isn’t not strong enough to stay in front of Smart. Trying to hide him on a big invites pick-and-roll issues.

When Al Horford grabs a rebound and pushes the ball in transition, defenses get scrambled almost immediately. The Nets — who, again, aren’t very versatile — simply can’t really afford to get scrambled.

Since the start of February, the Celtics have the league’s best offense, and the Nets have the league’s 22nd-best defense. Those numbers don’t look particularly friendly for Brooklyn.

4. A quick note to address Brown’s comments.

“Now they don’t have Robert Williams, so they have less of a presence in the paint,” Brown said. “We can attack [Daniel] Theis and [Al] Horford in the paint. Them not having Robert Williams is huge.”

Attacking the paint against Horford and Theis is probably easier than attacking Williams. However, it should be noted that lineups with Horford and Theis have outscored opponents by more than 30 points per 100 possessions in 220 possessions this season and have a 100th percentile offense AND defense.

The Celtics unquestionably miss Robert Williams, but they might be able to survive a few games without him.


5. LaMarcus Aldridge is an interesting test case for how difficult this matchup can be for the Nets. On the one hand, he hurts the Celtics because he’s switch-proof. Smart, for instance, can defend bigger players, but Aldridge negates that because when he catches the ball in the mid-post, he doesn’t have to do anything with it besides shoot (and Smart isn’t tall enough to contest).

On the other hand, the Nets can’t survive defensively against Tatum if Aldridge’s defensive assignment runs him through a pick-and-roll. Drummond is a similar test-case — he’s a lob threat and a vacuum for offensive rebounds, but he’s slow-footed facing a Celtics offense that forces defenses to be nimble.

Maybe the Celtics’ greatest advantage in the series is that nearly all of their players can hold up on both sides of the ball. The Nets can’t say the same.

6. Like Tatum — perhaps even more than Tatum — Durant is a nightmare for opposing defenses. The good news for the Celtics is that the Nets have fewer lineups built to punish opponents when Durant is doubled, and Durant doesn’t seem to be quite as comfortable passing. He finished with seven turnovers when the Celtics faced off in March, and while his iso-heavy style works wonders, it does slow the game down in a way that benefits the Celtics’ bulldozing defense.

Meanwhile, Nets lineups that feature three guards, for instance, get torched defensively (Irving, Brown, Seth Curry, Durant and Andre Drummond, for instance, have played 280 possessions together this season and have surrendered a 23rd-percentile 117.9 points per 100 possessions).


7. Among Celtics fans, the reaction to Tuesday’s game between the Cavaliers and Nets ran the gamut. Some were concerned and wished the Celtics did more to dodge Durant. Some looked at the way the Celtics have played recently and scoffed at the idea that the Nets could win.

There’s validity to both sides — Durant is a terrifying first-round proposition, but the Celtics have also been the league’s best team by net rating since the start of February.

Earning the 2-seed matters. Home-court advantage in the second round matters. Home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference finals is possible (if someone takes care of the Heat).

The Celtics will just have to earn it to get there.

8. A final note: The series begins on Sunday. The next two games are Wednesday and Saturday. In other words, each of the first three games will feel like it has outsized importance — the players will have two days to rest between each contest, but the takes will have two days to percolate and reach boiling point.

This could be a fun one. The Celtics and Nets tip off at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.


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