Celtics

The Celtics are for real, and they have nothing to fear in the Nets

Matthew J Lee/Globe staff
The Celtics won three of their four regular-season matchups with Brooklyn.


Dodge the Nets? Fret about the Nets? Fear the Nets?

No way. Bring on the Nets. And dismiss them, methodically and unrelentingly, into an early start to their offseason.

Come on. Haven’t you paid attention to what the Celtics have become? They don’t back away from a challenge. They are the challenge.

I know, I get that it’s still hard to wrap our heads around how right things have gone over the past three months, when every break over the last few seasons felt like a repeated kick to the shin.

This success — 28 wins in their final 35 games, blowout after blowout down the stretch, a final tally of 51 wins and the second seed in the Eastern Conference — still feels sudden, a little like a daydream.

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But it’s real. Even after losing human pogo stick Robert Williams III to a knee injury, they have maintained their dominance. This is who they are. It’s OK to believe in them. They went out and earned it.

Oh no, change did not come easily. A lethargic 2020-21 season led to a seismic shakeup in the organization — Danny Ainge to “retirement” and then Utah, Brad Stevens from the bench to the front office, and Ime Udoka in from the outside as the blunt new coach, conscience, and voice.

The Celtics were exasperating in the first half. Lousy old habits lingered. Every fourth-quarter lead proved tenuous. Ball movement was sporadic. Even with a new coach, it looked familiar in all the wrong ways. They lost 21 of their first 39 games.

But Udoka, a picture of stoicism to us but clearly someone who must reveal more behind the scenes given how players respect him but also feel comfortable needling him, never wavered in his message. Share the ball. Play defense with such ferocity that the opponent’s spirit breaks. Never let up.

Just when we wondered whether he was getting through to them, the truth was revealed: The players weren’t just listening, they were implementing.

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Jayson Tatum unlocked something in himself, finding a way to make his teammates better while elevating his offensive game to All-NBA levels. Marcus Smart proved he is indeed a point guard. Stevens, who has pulled off some Auerbachian deals in his first year in the front office (we don’t talk enough about the absolute heist of getting Al Horford back for Kemba Walker’s brutal contract), streamlined the roster and found a perfect intangible fit in guard Derrick White.

The Celtics finally became the fun, relentless, clever-passing team that we had hoped to see but were never quite sure we would. It’s incredibly satisfying, and the players’ resilience and determination in getting this situation right warrants faith right now.

Sure, Udoka could have rested his starters in the regular-season finale against the Grizzlies, perhaps allowing his team to finish with a lower seed and back into a presumably easier first-round matchup than Brooklyn. But that would have gone against this team’s newfound identity. The Celtics don’t back down on the court. Why should they concede anything off of it?

Besides, playing the Nets allows for the symmetry of a potential revenge tour; the Celtics could face the teams that ended their seasons in 2019 (Bucks), 2020 (Heat), and 2021 (Nets).

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Don’t get me wrong: The Nets are worthy of some respect. If Kevin Durant had shorter feet, they might have won the NBA title last year. Kyrie Irving remains as electrifying on the court as he is annoying away from it. (The Celtics do need their own Incense Guy to counteract Irving when he lights his little lavender delights at the Garden. I nominate Malik Fitts. Or maybe Luke Kornet could just walk around spraying a can of Off!)

But respect and fear are not synonyms. The Nets have some helpful role players (Bruce Brown would be a beloved Celtic), but they are atrocious defensively (20th in the league), and if the Celtics play with poise, they will not struggle to score.

It also should be noted that as much as we identify Udoka with Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, he was alongside Steve Nash on the Nets bench last year; he has deep institutional knowledge of what they want to do and what makes them tick.

Oh, and the notion that Ben Simmons — who allegedly has a bad back and hasn’t played since his “Here, you take it, Thybulle” meltdown in last season’s playoffs — is going to come back and be a Tatum Stopper is absurd. Simmons is the last player in the league that should be thrown into a circumstance like this.

The Celtics have been the best team in basketball since getting it right in February. Brown was correct Tuesday night in noting that the Celtics defense isn’t the same without Williams, but it’s still very good, and there is never-ending buzz that Williams will be back sooner rather than later. The degree of difficulty is higher while he’s out, but it still should not be that difficult.

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The Nets have an excellent tandem.

The Celtics have an excellent team.

Trust them. They’ve earned that much. And they’re about to earn so much more.

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