BOSTON (CBS) -- The Celtics were one of the best teams in the NBA since early January and jumped at the chance to secure the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference on the final day of the regular season. Their reward: A first-round meeting with the seven-seeded Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are not your usual seven-seed. They definitely played like one throughout the regular season, though there are a number of factors that led to their 44-38 records and spot in the play-in tournament. Kevin Durant was limited to 55 games because of a sprained MCL that he suffered in January. Kyrie Irving had to sit out the majority of Brooklyn's home games because he was unvaccinated. James Harden eventually pouted his way out of town, so Brooklyn's "Big Three" was never much of a "Big Three" and now they're down to just a dynamic duo.
But even after a mediocre regular season, they still possess two superstars in Durant and Irving. The big fear is that the Nets could easily flip a switch and be one of the most dangerous teams in the East this postseason.
However, they have to get through a pretty good Boston team if they want to play deep in the summer. And the Celtics, as they showed last Sunday, are not afraid of the challenge. Ime Udoka calling out the team's mental toughness in January was the turning point of the season, and the Celtics have been an absolute force since. They pass the ball with authority, and their defense has been the best in the business. Jayson Tatum is right there in terms of becoming a superstar, and Jaylen Brown's a two-way dynamo that is pretty super in his own right. They have an incredible supporting cast with Marcus Smart and Al Horford in the starting five. Derrick White, Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard have become solid options off the bench, fitting right into Ime Ball during the second half of the season.
This series is the Celtics' chance to exact some revenge and flip the script from last season, when Brooklyn sent them home and into an offseason of change. The Nets are actually the favorites heading into the series, and some are giving them the second-best odds to win the East. That should only give the Celtics even more motivation heading into the showdown.
Here are the storylines we'll be following when it all tips off Sunday afternoon:
Playoff Tatum Vs. Durant
This series will not come down to just Tatum vs. Durant. But we love to hype up head to head matchups and this one is one of the best.
Durant is an all-time great. The gangly midrange assassin can do just about anything he wants with a basketball in his hands. Everything he does is so smooth and so effortless. It's impossible not to appreciate his talent on the floor, even when he's on the other side.
Celtics fans have felt that same joy when watching Tatum this season. There is no longer any debate: The young man has reached superstar status. Now is his time to prove that he isn't just a little brother to superstars like Durant and Irving. He did everything he could to dispel that notion during the regular season, and now he has to do it on the biggest and brightest stage.
There is little reason to believe the 24-year-old isn't up to the challenge. He had an absolutely incredible month of March, and it didn't matter if he was playing the top or bottom teams in the NBA. Tatum went to work against everyone.
That included a 54-point explosion against Durant and the Nets on national TV. And that was just one of the massive games he's had against the Nets recently. He's dropped three 40-point games and seven 30-point games against Brooklyn over the last dozen Celtics-Nets matchups. He will feast on the defensively inept Nets all series.
But scoring cannot be his only focus, and neither should matching -- or passing -- Durant. We'd love to see the two go off on one of those classic one-on-one battles, ala Pierce vs. LeBron in Game 7 14 years ago, but that isn't the recipe for success for the Celtics.
Tatum is going to continue to see double and triple teams, and while he's capable of hitting some ridiculously tough spots, he cannot force it. Tatum was at his best when he was getting everyone involved, and too much ISO ball will throw off the team's rhythm. There will be times when he needs to take over, but he needs to keep doing what has led to Boston's second-half rise. That being said, expect some monster nights from Tatum over the next two weeks.
There's also the little matter of keeping Durant in check. That will mostly fall on Brown, with Tatum drawing Seth Curry, but switches will put Tatum on Durant at times. Keeping Durant from going wild is a pretty important factor over the next few weeks.
The Rise Of Jaylen Brown
Brown had to sit out last postseason, leaving Tatum to try and keep the Celtics afloat against the Nets. It didn't work out well for Boston.
Brown heads into this series coming off one of the best stretches of his career, averaging 27.1 points off 53.9 percent shooting over his last 12 games. He's locked in and playing with the confidence that he needs entering the playoffs. He's also feeding his teammates, as of late, averaging 6.2 assists over his last six games.
When Tatum gets all the attention, or if he's having an off night, it will be Brown's time to shine. He's also going to play an important part in slowing Durant, duties he'll share with Tatum, and he'll probably find himself on Kyrie on occasion, though that will mostly fall on Smart and White.
Celtics Keeping Course On Offense
As we said earlier, the Celtics turned things around when ball movement became their forte on offense. Tatum and Brown still got plenty of looks, but with the ball spinning around the court they got even better looks. So did Smart and Horford, who are always willing to make that extra pass to turn a good look into a great one.
Tatum can still take over in ISO ball situations, but that isn't the best path to success. Against a defensively challenged Nets team, the Celtics need to keep it moving and take advantage of their open looks.
Whip it around for premium looks on the perimeter, or to open easy paths to the basket. It's so simple, yet it's not that simple. The allure to match Durant and Kryie is going to be there, but the Celtics cannot fall victim to that temptation. Keep the ball moving, and good things should happen.
Can The Celtics Win A Close Game?
The Celtics absolutely trounced teams this season, notching 18 wins by 20 points or more. That was tied for the most in the NBA with the Grizzlies, a team they also beat by 29 points in their final regular season game, though most of Memphis' players were hibernating that night. Of those 18 blowout wins by Boston, 16 of them came after mid-January.
When the Celtics were good, they were really good. What they struggled with, though, was close games. Boston was just 13-22 in games that were within five points over the final five minutes, which was better than only the Indiana Pacers during the season. That is not ideal. At least one of those wins was when Tatum dropped 54 against the Nets last month, as Boston scored 13 points on nine possessions during clutch time.
Brooklyn, by comparison, was 22-20 in clutch games. It would be in Boston's best interest to jump out early and often this series.
Yeah, Kyrie playing the Celtics is always going to be a story. Hopefully there is no water bottle tosses or logo stomping this time around.
Irving went off in the play-in round, hitting his first 12 shots against the Cavaliers. The Celtics have to do everything they can to make him uncomfortable and force shots. With the hounding defense and switching capabilities of Smart and White, they have the horses to do just that.
But Kyrie is absurdly talented at getting his shot off, so it's going to be a pretty epic battle.
There are a few wild cards in the series in terms for star players coming back from injury. Rob Williams emerged as the perfect third option behind Tatum and Brown in his first full season as a starter, but is starting the series on the mend as he recovers from meniscus surgery. He may be able to return later in the series, with Game 5 falling one month after he went under the knife. His return would be huge for the Celtics.
Boston won't rush him back, but he is a game-changer in the paint on both ends of the floor. Al Horford and Daniel Theis should be able to hold down the fort in his absence, especially with a little extra motivation courtesy of Bruce Brown on Tuesday night, but having Williams in the fold would make life much easier -- and more exciting -- for the Celtics.
Then there is Ben Simmons, who landed in Brooklyn as the main piece of the Harden trade, but has yet to suit up for the Nets. There are rumblings that he may be back sometime between Games 4 and 6 after nursing a herniated disc for the last few months, but that would be his first action in nearly a year. Debuting with a new team in a playoff series against a team like the Celtics is not the most ideal scenario for any player, so we'll see if that happens. Simmons is a special defensive player, but is tossing him out to defend a guy like Tatum after such a long layoff really putting him in the best situation to succeed?
The Celtics aren't really banking on him making an appearance this series. Asked Wednesday how much prep work they're putting in for Simmons, Udoka said "none yet."
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