Celtics’ 3-0 series lead is more about Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown than Kevin Durant

"It's us against whoever else."

Celtics Nets series
Kevin Durant of Brooklyn Nets during Game 3 of the first-round NBA playoff series, which the Nets trail, 0-3, to the Boston Celtics, at Barclays Center in New York. Michelle Farsi/The New York Times

Remember when this Celtics vs. Nets series was supposed to be a nail-biter?

ESPN, for example, released its first-round predictions a few days prior to Game 1. A majority of analysts and writers picked the Celtics … but just barely — 11 chose the Celtics, while 10 went with the Nets. By way of comparison, 21 out of 21 analysts picked the Grizzlies over the Timberwolves — a series which is now headed back to Memphis deadlocked at 2-2.

Weird things happen in the playoffs, of course, and it’s hard to blame someone for betting on Kevin Durant. But the Celtics were the league’s best defense over the course of the entire season, and the best offense for much of the second half. After February 1, the Celtics had a staggering net rating of 14.4 (the next closest team was the Grizzlies at 8.9). Jayson Tatum had the NBA’s best individual net rating in the league over that same stretch (min. 12 games played). Al Horford was second. Robert Williams was third. Daniel Theis was fourth.


The Celtics were a no-questions-asked juggernaut ever since they turned their season around.


So why does this 3-0 series lead seem to be such a surprise for so many people? At ESPN, the tone has shifted drastically — Stephen A. Smith blasted Durant’s leadership on Sunday and questioned whether the Nets even want to go back to Boston. Jalen Rose took it a step further and guaranteed that Kyrie Irving doesn’t want to go back. Michael Wilbon chided the Nets for their “arrogance” and questioned what in the world the team is doing in its film sessions.

Much has been made of the failures of Durant, Irving, and Steve Nash because failure is drama, and drama sells (or generates clicks). Not nearly as much has been made of a Celtics team dominating an inferior opponent, which is essentially all they’ve done since the middle of January.

“We’re a team that accepts any challenge,” Grant Williams said on Sunday. “We’re a team that we’re going to believe in one another no matter what happens. Regardless of Brooklyn’s mentality, I can’t really speak on it because I don’t really know much about how they’re feeling with the thinking. I know for us, it’s just a matter of sticking together and understanding that, like we said, it’s us against whoever else.”


To be clear, the Celtics aren’t a “Nobody Believes In Us” team. Many analysts declared them contenders months ago. The hang-up before the series against the Nets seemed to be out of respect for Durant and Irving, which — once again — is understandable.

Those concerns now feel laughable, however. A little more than a week after the series began, the Nets have all but thrown in the towel. Ben Simmons isn’t going to risk his health on a lost cause — which is an understandable decision, even if the urge for fans to call him out for it is equally understandable. Durant admitted the Celtics have him overthinking things. After Game 2, Irving all but declared that the Celtics’ time is now.

“The team in the other locker room is gelling at the right time,” Irving added after Game 3. “They’ve been jelling since Christmas. So, for us, we’re just in a new experience as a group, and we just got to respect that.”

As defeated as the Nets sound, the Celtics deserve most of the credit for so thoroughly defeating them. Their defense against Durant seems to have the former MVP shaken. Their Game 2 rally hammered home the point that they have another level the Nets simply can’t match. That gap will only widen as Robert Williams grows more comfortable after his return.


The Celtics say they aren’t ready to start prepping for the second round yet.

“We all know exactly what [Durant and Irving] can do,” Marcus Smart said. “And I think that’s what makes us turn it up is we know exactly what these guys are capable of, and we don’t want them to be able to get off to a start to do that to us. So we have to turn it up or it’ll cost us.”

Udoka, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of the little details.

“Obviously, Kevin has seen everything in this league for years and adjusted and adapted to that,” he said. “I saw it myself guarding him as a young player, how his improvement from year one to two to three was, and so not trying to confuse or any of that, but give him tough looks and do keep them off balance at times.”

That’s diplomacy, and it’s convincing. The Celtics do seem to hold a healthy, well-earned respect for Durant and Irving.

But ever since he arrived in Boston, Udoka has made it clear “respect” can go a little too far. At his introductory press conference last summer, Udoka said he always used to tell Kawhi Leonard not to give opposing superstars too much respect.

“I’d say the same thing to Jayson and Jaylen: The sky is the limit,” Udoka said at the time. “The fact that you’re not All-NBA, that should be a chip on your shoulder. You should play with that edge and want to prove people wrong.


“My message to them would be, ‘Why wait? The talent is there, the work ethic is there, there’s a chance to be a better leader and more vocal at times, but don’t wait for anything. Go out and take it.”

This, presumably, is what Udoka had in mind.


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