Celtics' Complete Guide to 1st-Round Playoff Series vs. Nets

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 20, 2021

Celtics' Complete Guide to 1st-Round Playoff Series vs. Nets

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Following a 2020-21 NBA season in which the Boston Celtics took one turbulent turn after the next, their 118-100 handling of the Washington Wizards in the play-in tournament offers the chance for a momentary exhale.

    What Boston needs, though, is a deep breath to prepare itself for what comes next. While the victory gave the Celtics an official seat at the playoff table, it also set up a first-round series against the second-seeded, star-powered Brooklyn Nets.

    While Boston just watched what its star can do—Jayson Tatum willed and wowed his way to 50 points—it now must contend with the three-headed monster of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

    But the Celtics, who made the conference finals in three of the past four seasons, entered this year with the expectation of competing against other elite teams in the East. They surely didn't plan on doing so without Jaylen Brown (lost for the season to a wrist injury), but the show must go on.

    To properly set the stage for this series, we're here to break down everything you need to know about Boston vs. Brooklyn.

Series Schedule

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Game 1: Saturday, May 22 | Celtics at Nets, 8 p.m. ET on ABC

    Game 2: Tuesday, May 25 | Celtics at Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET on TNT

    Game 3: Friday, May 28 | Nets at Celtics, 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC

    Game 4: Sunday, May 30 | Nets at Celtics, 7 p.m. ET on TNT

    Game 5*: Tuesday, June 1 | Celtics at Nets, TBD

    Game 6*: Thursday, June 3 | Nets at Celtics, TBD

    Game 7*: Saturday, June 5 | Celtics at Nets, TBD

    *If necessary.

Key Matchups

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    This time of year, NBA coaches often talk of having "appropriate fear" for an opponent. Brad Stevens has much more than that for the Nets, whom he recently called "probably the most talented team that's been assembled since I've been in the NBA."

    Brooklyn swept the season series 3-0 despite never having all three stars available for the matchup. The Nets had a 28-point win without Harden, a 12-point triumph without Durant and a four-point win without either one. Brooklyn had a significant talent advantage even before Boston lost Brown.

    The Celtics need to fake their way around that.

    A dialed-in Tatum could go toe-to-toe with Durant. Kemba Walker's best games often resemble Irving's. And while there's no counterpart for Harden, it can at least lean on Evan Fournier for scoring and secondary playmaking and on Marcus Smart for lockdown defense.

    Even through green-and-white glasses, it's advantage Brooklyn. But those are the matchups Boston must somehow keep close to make this a series.


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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    When Irving ditched the Celtics in 2019, they quickly tabbed Walker as his replacement. It was smooth sailing at the start, but a nagging knee injury that first surfaced in January 2020 has plagued the 6'0" scoring guard since.

    It's not a nightly issue, but it's a constant threat to sap his efficiency. Despite getting rest days when he could, he still finished with his worst field-goal percentage since 2014-15 (42.0).

    He can still play like a star, though. In three of his last four regular-season outings, he had at least 32 points and four three-pointers. During the play-in win, he went for 29 points and six triples.

    The question is whether he can do that consistently—and whether that would be enough for a Boston team without Brown against the most efficient offense in NBA history. Unless the Celtics get the good Walker and a big lift from deadline pickup Evan Fournier, another X-factor, they probably can't keep up.

    If Boston does find enough offense to trade blows with Brooklyn's stars, then the Nets might need sharpshooter Joe Harris to push them over the top.

    He is as efficient as it gets. For the second time in three seasons, he paced the Association in three-point percentage. But when he dials up the volume, the Nets are basically unbeatable. They were 12-1 when he scored 20-plus points and 19-2 when he had at least 17.

    If the Celtics can make the Nets sweat, Brooklyn's other X-factor could be head coach Steve Nash. This is his first playoff journey as an NBA skipper, and he just so happens to be coaching a mega-high-profile championship hopeful that only had its three best players on the floor together eight times during the regular season.


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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    It would be great for the NBA if this series were close.

    The Celtics are a marquee franchise. The Nets have the best collection of marquee talent. Having this series go six or seven games would be a massive ratings boost.

    But it's hard to see that happening if Brooklyn is healthy.

    Stars win big in the postseason. The Nets have three, and the Celtics might have one-and-a-half (Tatum, plus Walker's good nights). Brooklyn arguably has the edge in supporting cast too.

    The argument isn't who wins this series—it's whether the Nets break out the brooms. Our crystal ball says they won't and instead will sweep in gentlemanly fashion, with the Celtics grabbing one win behind a mammoth scoring performance by Tatum and Walker.

    Prediction: Nets in five.