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Nets Or Cavaliers: Breaking Down Potential First-Round Opponents For Celtics

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Celtics are the two-seed in the Eastern Conference, patiently waiting to learn who their first-round foe will be when things tip off for them Sunday afternoon. They'll find out Tuesday night when the Brooklyn Nets host the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA's first play-in game of 2022.

The Celtics sent a message on Sunday night, playing to win against a depleted Memphis team when they could have treated the game as an exhibition. A loss would have dropped Boston to fourth in the East, and the Celtics would have avoided a potential first-round matchup with the Nets -- a super team that may turn it on now that the playoffs have arrived, but was anything but super throughout the regular season.

But the Celtics scoffed at the notion of manipulating their playoff seeding. A first-round matchup with the Nets may not be ideal, but the Celtics were not going to back away from that possible challenge. Not when homecourt in Round 2 was on the line.

So now we wait to find out which team the Celtics will host in the first round. Here's a quick breakdown of their two potential foes.

The Nets

It's understandable if you want nothing to do with a playoff series against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Durant is awesome, one of the most gifted basketball players on the planet. Kyrie is insanely talented as well, the best ball-handler in the game and an assassin from all three levels.

It's a ridiculous duo and they also have Seth Curry and Patty Mills to knock down shots from deep and Andre Drummond and Nic Claxton to pull down some rebounds. Ben Simmons may even join his new team for Round 1, according to reports.

It's a terrifying offensive team, for sure. But defensively, the Nets are a mess. Their 112.3 defensive rating for the season was 20th in the NBA. Their net rating of 0.9 ranked 15th in the league. They score a ton of points, but they also give up plenty, with opponents averaging 112 points each night during the regular season.

For comparison, the Celtics' top-ranked defense allowed just 104.5 points per game. The Nets are really good on offense. Stupid good. But how will that fare in the postseason when defenses tighten and points are even harder to come by? That will likely decide this series, and the advantage lies with the Celtics in that area.

The Nets won their final four games of the regular season, but were extremely up and down over the last six weeks. They lost four straight in early March (including a loss to Boston), followed by four straight wins. They then went 4-5 before rattling off those four straight wins to lock up the top spot in the play-in.

Super talented? Indeed. Extremely inconsistent? You betcha.

Regular Season: Boston took three of four against Brooklyn during the regular season, winning each of the last three matchups. The Nets took the first meeting on Nov. 24, 123-104, in Boston, jumping out to a 29-point lead in the third quarter. Kyrie wasn't even a part-time player at that point in the season, so Brooklyn was led by 23 points by Mills, with Durant scoring 21 and James Harden dropping 20 points and dishing out 11 assists. Tatum had just 15 points off 4-for-16 shooting, while Marcus Smart led the way with 20 points and eight assists.

The Celtics won big in Brooklyn on Feb. 8, 126-91, as part of their second-half resurgence. Boston jumped out to a ridiculous 28-2 lead, and Brown and Smart both finished with 22 points. But Durant, Harden and Irving did not play that night, so it's tough to take much away from that lopsided victory.

The Celtics returned from the All-Star break to stomp the Nets again,129-106, on Feb. 24. But once again, no one really played for Brooklyn. The Celtics took full advantage, with Tatum scoring 30 while Brown added 18. Seven Celtics scored in double figures as the team shot 54 percent for the game.

The last regular season meeting between the two teams was easily the best, as Tatum and Durant went back-and-forth on a Sunday afternoon in a thrilling Boston win. March 6, 2022 will go down as one of Tatum's finest, as he scored 54 points (34 of which came in the second half) to lead the Celtics to a 126-120 victory. Durant was pretty good too, with 37 points, while Irving struggled in his first game in three weeks, scoring 19 off 8-for-18 shooting.

Jaylen Brown had 21 for Boston, including a three with 40 seconds left to give the C's a 121-115 lead. It was awesome.

The Cavaliers

While the Nets are offensively gifted but defensively challenged, the Cavaliers are the opposite. The 105.7 points per game that they allowed was fifth-best in the NBA, as was their 108.9 defensive rating. But the 107.8 points per game they averaged themselves ranked 25th in the NBA. Yikes.

But the Cavs are a pretty talented group, led by point guard Darius Garland (21.7 points, 8.6 assists per game) and rookie Evan Mobley (15 points, eight rebounds per contest). Kevin Love has also enjoyed a resurgence this season and is getting Sixth Man consideration, and the Cavs also employ one Rajon Rondo, who as we know becomes a completely different beast in the postseason.

Cleveland did not play good basketball down the stretch, losing five of their last seven and eight of their final 11 games.

Regular Season: Boston won two of its three matchups with Cleveland during the regular season, but all three of those meetings occurred before Christmas. Two of those happened in early November when the teams played two straight games in Cleveland.

The Cavs took the first matchup on Nov. 13, 91-89, as the Celtics blew a 19-point third quarter lead. Cleveland went on a 24-4 run after the Celtics went up 72-53 in the third quarter, one of many blown leads the Celtics suffered before their January turnaround. It was a close game down the stretch with five lead changes and seven ties. A pair of Garland free throws with 9.4 seconds won it for the Cavs, as Dennis Schroder (remember him!) missed a baseline jumper at the buzzer that would have forced overtime. Garland had 22 points for Cleveland while Mobley added 19 points and nine rebounds in the Cavs only win over the Celtics. Boston was without Jaylen Brown, and the Cavs defense frustrated Jayson Tatum (8-for-22) and the Celtics in general, as the team committed 20 turnovers.

Tatum took that frustration out on the Cavs a few nights later, scoring 23 to go with eight rebounds and five assists in a 98-92 Celtics win. Boston trailed by 11 in the first half and didn't take its first lead until the third quarter. Schroder, starting again for the injured Jaylen Brown, score six of his 14 points in the final two minutes, while Al Horford added 17 points and nine rebounds for the Celtics.

Brown was back for the third and final matchup between the two teams in the regular season on Dec. 22, and he dropped 34 points in the 111-101 Celtics victory. The Cavs were pretty shorthanded that night, with eight players in NBA Health and Safety Protocol.

Robert Williams scored a career-high 21 points to go with his 11 rebounds that night, while Tatum added 18 for Boston. The Celtics were also a bit shorthanded that night, with seven players in Protocol, with a 40-year-old Joe Johnson playing two minutes a few hours after signing with the team.

Who Do You Want? The Cavaliers are a good team, but would be the easier path to the second round for the Celtics. If the path of least resistance is your preference, then Cleveland is the obvious choice.

The Nets would obviously be a much bigger challenge for the Celtics to tip off the postseason, and while Boston doesn't fear anyone at the moment, Brooklyn would likely give them a tough series. It could be just the start of a playoff gauntlet for the Celtics if they want to reach the Finals.

But how sweet would it be to knock off Durant and Irving and potentially send the Nets into an offseason of finger-pointing and bickering. It would be some sweet revenge after Brooklyn eliminated Boston in the first round last postseason.

Not to mention, a tough first round could propel the Celtics to great things this summer. Whomever they face in the opening round, the Celtics will be ready.

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