Now that the Nets have brushed aside the Cavaliers in play-in to reach seventh place in the Eastern Conference, their reward is a run against arguably the hottest team in the entire NBA.
The Celtics rode the best defense in the league to go 34-12 down the stretch and claim the No. 2 seed. This first-round series is a repeat of last season’s opening round, won by the Nets in five games with laughs, except this time the Celtics are healthier, more popular and on form.
There are countless storylines surrounding Kyrie Irving’s return to Boston, which kicks off with Game 1 at the TD Garden on Sunday. And while Kevin Durant has expressed nothing but respect for the Celtics, privately the Nets are confident they are a good match.
The Post’s Brian Lewis breaks down the matchups that will decide if they really do:
The Nets 3-point shooting vs. the Celtics 3-point defense
From the point Durant returned from his month-and-a-half absence due to a sprained left MCL injury, the Nets were third-best in the NBA with a 3-point spread (.399). But can Bruce Brown keep up his unusually hot shooting? Can Seth Curry, struggling with a sore ankle, regain his consistency? Boston had the league’s best 3-point defense all season (.339), and it only stinged in the second half.
The Celtics’ 3-point shooting vs. the Nets’ 3-point defense
Most aspects of the Nets’ defense were mediocre for much of the regular season, despite finishing eighth in 3-point defense. The Nets finally seemed motivated and dug in on the stretch and finished ninth in the defensive standings as they closed 12-5. Boston wasn’t a high-volume shooting team, but finished eighth in 3 seconds.
This has always been an Achilles’ heel for the Nets, who ranked last in the league in terms of defensive rebound percentage. But the addition of Andre Drummond helped fill that hole, lifting them from miserable to average. Despite a physical lead, the Celtics are also in midfield. Losing Robert Williams III to a knee injury, Boston leveled the competition on the boards.
Drawing fouls and shooting free throws
The Nets were the top 10 in the league in terms of free throws taken and percentages scored. And even if Irving inexplicably avoids the drive, he and Durant will go deep in the paint and pull fouls. But they attack too often and give away too many cheap points at the Charity Stripe (26th in last 15 games). They should learn from the Celtics, who manage to have the best defense in the league while still being in the bottom third in free throws conceded and in the bottom five in fouls committed.
The Nets’ ability to get color points against the Celtics’ central defense
The Bostonians were triggered when Brown said his nets can attack more with Daniel Theis and Al Horford in the paint instead of Williams, but he wasn’t lying. Horford is a high-IQ defender, but Williams’ rim protection and assist-side defense are elite, a big reason Boston was in the top five in both blocks and had the fewest paint points allowed. The Nets had the second fewest drives in the league and Irving had the fewest layup attempts of his career.
The Celtics’ ability to get paint points against the Nets’ central defense
Nic Claxton blocked five shots in the play-in win while Durant saved three. Claxton’s improved form has helped the Nets’ defense. They’ll be tested by Boston winger Jayson Tatum, who averaged 26.9 points and made the final leap to superstardom. Despite Horford’s efficiency and skillful passing, the loss of Williams hampered the Celtics’ ability to punish the Nets on the inside.
With Durant and Irving, the Nets thrive in open ground. They are eighth in fast break points and fourth in their last 15 games (16.8). And the best way to attack Boston is before they line up in halfcourt play, their high-level defense is only good in transition. On the other hand, Boston scored the third fewest transition points in the league, although the Nets have been lazy to come back all season and may not be able to take advantage of it.
This is the healthiest reading the networks have had since the close. That gives coach Steve Nash the luxury of a nine-man rotation, with Claxton, Patty Mills, Kessler Edwards and Goran Dragic all playing appropriate roles off the bench. Williams’ absence will force Boston to start Theis and Horford together, leaving Derrick White and Grant Williams (and perhaps Payton Pritchard) as the only reliable benching options.
edge: nets, through a crowd
In addition to keeping the team together, Nash improved his endgame management and post-time off work. His former assistant, Ime Udoka, honestly should get the love for coach of the year in his very first season at the bottom of the Celtics bench. Udoka – the youngest branch of the Spurs tree – has impressed with his defensive acumen, player management and motivational skills.
The Nets are still looking for cohesion after going through a team-record 42 different starting lineups. It remains to be seen if that will undercut the starting talents of Durant and Irving, whose three-tiered scoring abilities translate to their playoff skills. Still, a Boston team rebounding from a 17-19 start with a 34-12 finish must be doing something right in the intangibles department.