BOSTON (CBS) -- We kind of knew it was going to come to this when the Celtics clinched the No. 2 seed in the East. Boston will host the Brooklyn Nets in what should be a thrilling and entertaining first-round matchup in the NBA Playoffs.
Game 1 of the series is set for Sunday in Boston. Tip-off is at 3:30 p.m.
The Nets clinched the Eastern Conference's seven-seed with a 115-108 play-in win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Brooklyn on Tuesday night. Kyrie Irving led the way with 34 points off 12-for-15 shooting, hitting his first 12 attempts. Irving didn't miss his first shot until the 10:05 mark of the fourth quarter.
After the Cavaliers cut their 22-point third-quarter deficit down to just six in the fourth, Kevin Durant hit a pair of jumpers on back-to-back possessions to put the Nets back up by double digits with 3:37 left. Durant finished the game with 25 points and 11 of Brooklyn's 33 assists. Boston native Bruce Brown had a solid evening with 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, while Nic Claxton added 13 points, nine boards and five blocks for the Nets.
The Celtics and their top-ranked defense will now have to deal Brooklyn's dynamic duo of Durant and Irving in order to advance to the East semis. But since Boston played to win the two-seed on Sunday night, the Celtics knew this was a possibility.
And Boston isn't going to back down from any challenge this postseason, not after the team's incredible turnaround in the second half of the regular season. The Celtics have been the best team in the NBA since early January, which has filled everyone's heads with title aspirations. Boston embraced the possibility of getting the Nets in the first round, and a chance to exact some revenge after Brooklyn stomped the C's -- and in one instance, their logo -- last postseason.
This time around, the Celtics will have both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in their lineup, with both playing at a high level. Tatum thrust himself into the MVP conversation with a career year, averaging 26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per contest. He shook off some rough shooting nights at the start of the season and finished the year with .453/.353/.853 splits. He averaged 29.5 points while hitting 48 percent of his shots in four games against Brooklyn, including an epic 54-point showing in a Celtics win over the Nets in Boston on March 6.
Brown was excellent as well, averaging 23.6 points per game to go with 6.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists, and he really turned it up after being snubbed for his second straight All-Star nod. Brown scored at least 20 points in 11 straight games toward the end of the campaign, dropping at least 30 in five of those contests while shooting 54 percent from the floor and 47 percent from three-point range.
After missing last year's postseason after undergoing wrist surgery, Brown is eager to help lead the Celtics on a deep playoff run.
A number of factors favor the Celtics this time around. Brown is back. Marcus Smart is doing his thing on both ends of the floor, and likely champing at the bit for a showdown with Irving. He'll have plenty of help from Derrick White when it comes to keeping Kyrie in check. Al Horford gives the team a solid veteran presence, while Grant Williams has turned himself into a legit three-point threat.
The Celtics seem poised to get some revenge on the Nets. Boston played smothering defense in the second half of the season and their excellent passing on offense created open looks for everyone on the floor. This is a much different team than the one that lost to the Nets in five games last postseason, a team that had to turn to Romeo Langford to start games and Jabari Parker to play important minutes off the bench.
The big concern heading into the series is that Robert Williams is still on the mend and likely won't be playing, though head coach Ime Udoka has not closed the door on the energetic big man returning to throw down some lobs and reject a handful of shots. The other worry is the fact that Durant and Irving are pretty damn good, and could be capable of flipping the proverbial switch after Brooklyn's inconsistent regular season.
Durant played just two games against the Celtics during the regular season, hitting 54 percent from the floor while averaging 29 per game. He tried to offset Tatum's monster game last month with 37 points in Brooklyn's losing effort, hitting 12 of his 21 shots that afternoon. He was ridiculous to close the regular season too, averaging 32.2 points off 50 percent shooting in five games in April, including a 55-point game in a Brooklyn loss to Atlanta.
The Nets lost that game because Irving was wildly inefficient, hitting just 12 of his 31 shots in a 32-point effort. Focusing on Durant, while forcing Irving to heave, is Boston's best game plan for the upcoming series. Irving saw his former team just once during the regular season, scoring 19 points off 8-for-18 shooting on March 6.
While the Nets possess an insanely talented and diverse offense, the Celtics can throw the NBA's best defense at them. And when it comes to defense, Brooklyn doesn't play a lick of it. This won't be an easy series by any stretch, but the Celtics have been on a mission since January. Following their second-half success with a first-round exit will not be acceptable, no matter the opponent.
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