NBA playoffs 2022: Breaking down Nets-Celtics matchups
Now that the Nets have brushed aside the Cavaliers in the play-in to clinch the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, their reward is a series against arguably the hottest team in the entire NBA.
The Celtics rode the league’s best defense to go 34-12 down the stretch, and claim the No. 2 seed. This first-round series is a rematch of last season’s opening-roundwon in a five-game laugher by the Nets, except this time, the Celtics are healthier, favored and in-form.
There are myriad storylines surrounding Kyrie Irving’s return to Boston, starting Sunday with Game 1 at TD Garden. And though Kevin Durant has professed nothing but respect for the Celticsthe Nets are privately confident that they match up well.
The Post’s Brian Lewis breaks down the matchups that will decide if they really do:
Nets’ 3-point shooting vs. Celtics’ 3-point defense
From the point at which Durant returned from his month-and-a-half absence due to a sprained left MCL injury, the Nets were third-best in the NBA from 3-point range (.399). But can Bruce Brown keep up his uncharacteristically hot shooting? Can Seth Curry, struggling with a sore ankle, regain consistency? Boston had the top 3-point defense in the league for the entire season (.339), and it has only gotten stingier in the second half.
Celtics’ 3-point shooting vs. Nets’ 3-point defense
Most aspects of the Nets’ defense have been middling through much of the regular season, although they did finish eighth in 3-point defense. The Nets finally seemed motivated and dug in down the stretch, and finished ninth in defensive rating as they closed 12-5. Boston hasn’t been a high-volume shooting team, but was eighth in 3s made.
This has always been an Achilles’ heel for the Nets, who finished dead last in the league in defensive rebound percentage. But the addition of Andre Drummond has helped plug that hole and lifted them from abysmal to average. Despite an edge in physicality, the Celtics are near the middle of the pack as well. Boston losing Robert Williams III to a knee injury levels the contest on the boards.
Drawing fouls and shooting free throws
The Nets were top 10 in the league in free throws taken and percentage made. And even with Irving inexplicably eschewing the drive, he and Durant will get deep into the paint and draw fouls. But they reach too often and give away too many cheap points at the charity stripe (26th in the last 15 games). They should take lessons from the Celtics, who manage to have the league’s best defense while still being in the bottom third in free throws conceded and bottom five in fouls committed.
Nets’ ability to get paint points vs. Celtics’ interior defense
Bostonians were triggered when Brown said his Nets will be able to attack more with Daniel Theis and Al Horford in the paint instead of Williams, but he wasn’t lying. Horford is a high IQ defender, but Williams’ rim protection and help-side defense is elite, for a huge reason Boston was top five in both blocks and fewest paint points allowed. The Nets had the second-fewest drives in the league and Irving had the fewest layup attempts of his career.
Celtics’ ability to get paint points vs. Nets’ interior defense
Nic Claxton blocked five shots in the play-in win, while Durant rejected three. Claxton’s improved form has helped the Nets’ defense. They’ll be tested by Boston wing Jayson Tatum, who averaged 26.9 points and has taken that final leap to superstardom. Still, despite Horford’s efficiency and deft passing, losing Williams hurts the Celtics’ ability to punish the Nets inside.
With Durant and Irving, the Nets thrived out in the open floor. They’re eighth in fast-break points, and fourth over the final 15 games (16.8). And the best way to attack Boston is before they get set up in the halfcourt game, their top-ranked defense merely good in transition. On the other end, even though the Nets have been lackadaisical getting back all season, Boston scored the third-fewest transition points in the league and may not take advantage.
This is the healthiest the Nets have been since the trade deadline. That gives coach Steve Nash the luxury of a nine-man rotation, with Claxton, Patty Mills, Kessler Edwards and Goran Dragic all playing appropriate roles off the bench. Williams’ absence will force Boston to start Theis and Horford together, leaving Derrick White and Grant Williams (and perhaps Payton Pritchard) as the only reliable bench options.
edge: Nets, by a lot
Nash has not only kept the team together, but also has improved his endgame management and after-timeout work. His former assistant to him, Ime Udoka, frankly should get love for Coach of the Year in his very first season at the end of the Celtics’ bench. Udoka — the latest branch off the Spurs’ tree — has impressed with his defensive acumen, player management and ability to motivate.
The Nets are still looking for cohesion after cycling through a team-record 42 different starting lineups. It remains to be seen if that will undercut the star talents of Durant and Irving, whose three-level scoring abilities let their profits translate in the playoffs. Still, a Boston team that bounced back from a 17-19 start with a 34-12 finish must be doing something right in the intangibles department.