2021 NBA Playoffs Preview: (2) Nets vs. (7) Celtics

This season’s playoffs are looking to provide great first-round match-ups that will be competitive. While roster-wise this series between the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics would seem to be one of those, all signs point otherwise. Due to a handful of injuries and overall underperformance from the Celtics this season, the team ended the season with a 36-36 record and the No. 7 seed. Boston had to participate in the inaugural Play-In Tournament as they hosted the Washington Wizards and defeated them 118-100, securing a chance to play Brooklyn. 

After making it to the Eastern Conference Finals last year in the bubble as the No. 3 seed, expectations were high for head coach Brad Stevens and his young cast of stars. Forward Jayson Tatum (23 years old) is now viewed as the leader of this group that includes veteran Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and others.

The Brooklyn Nets have had quite possibly the most interesting season in the NBA. The second the team signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving two summers ago, all eyes immediately turned to them as the favorites in the East. This being the first season for Durant since tearing his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, expectations were that he would return to traditional KD form, which he has done. The lengthy lethal weapon averaged 26.9 points per game on a career-best 45% from 3-point range. The only caveat to these stats is that Durant only played 35 games this season, a career-low, due to a multitude of reasons such as a nagging hamstring injury that kept him out for nearly two months and a stint under COVID health and safety protocol.

Kyrie Irving will also get the chance to compete against his former team that he played for only two seasons ago. Kyrie was reportedly seen a toxic locker room presence during his stint in Boston despite his former teammates showing him nothing but love in games against each other. It has been tough love on Irving’s side as the Nets have swept the season series against the Celtics 3-0.

Even with Durant’s injuries, the team still won twice as much as it lost, going 48-24 and falling just one game behind the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. How has the team had such smooth success?

Enter James Harden. 

The Nets traded for James Harden early in the season, mortgaging much of their young squad and draft capital for the former MVP. Notable players that left Brooklyn were center Jarett Allen, forward Taurean Prince, and guard Caris LeVert. Once Harden forced his way out of Houston, many questioned how this experiment would work. With Kyrie Irving being a ball-dominant guard, how would these star players get enough touches to be satisfied with? 

Having Durant, Irving and now Harden on one roster meant sacrifice was going to have to be made. For better or worse, the Nets have kicked that can down the road and have just now caught up to it. The “Big 3” of this super team have only played a total of eight games together…eight. Each player has had injuries or personal reasons for missing time, including Harden who dealt with a similar hamstring injury right when Durant was coming back from his. This lack of continuity is the biggest red flag for this team and they will need to use their first-round Boston Celtics as a testing ground for what the three stars can do together for an extended period of time.

Despite the Celtics needing the Play-In to secure a playoff spot, the idea of them being used as practice for the Nets seems beneath the reigning Eastern Conference runner-ups. A team that has caught fire in the recent past, Boston looks like it’s limping to the finish line. The team recently lost guard Jaylen Brown, who last played May 2 against the Portland Trailblazers, for the remainder of the season with a torn left wrist ligament that required surgery. Brown, an All-Star this year, had career-highs in points per game (24.7 PPG) and assists per game (3.4 APG). He also had career-high percentages in field goals made (48.4%), 3-Point shots made (39.7 %) and Free throws made (76.4%). Celtics center Robert Williams III is also nursing a turf toe injury but is expected to play Game 1. With Boston being completely out-matched offensively, size could be an area of focus for the Celtics that they could have the upper hand in if Williams is healthy.

If Brown were to be healthy, the Celtics maybe, just maybe might be able to give the Nets a run for their money and make them sweat just a little bit. Unfortunately, without him, Tatum would need to put up Jimmy Butler finals performances each game to give Boston a chance. We’ve seen Tatum do that before, such as the 50-point game he had in the Play-In game against Washington. Tatum also dropped a career-high 60 points against the San Antonio Spurs on April 30. Games like this just don’t happen all the time. Tatum is going to need immense help to even get past the Nets big three. Kemba Walker is going to have to play like he did as a Charlotte Hornet and more. His 29-point outing in the Wizard Play-In Game showed that he can be a spark, but that spark is going to have to catch fire for Boston to be a challenge for Brooklyn, a team that averaged 118.6 points per game.

If everyone was healthy on the Celtic side, it wouldn’t be a shock if this series went six or even seven games given the Nets’ lack of familiarity among its stars. However, as currently constructed, this series is effectively over before it has even started. The series is set to start Saturday, May 22 at 5 p.m. PST on ABC.

Prediction: Nets in Five

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