Thorpe breaks down East's Round 1
Celtics/Nets will be an instant classic
BY DAVID THORPE
Celtics-Nets will be an instant classic
Ben Simmons isn’t the x-factor; Robert Williams III is
Do the Nets want it badly enough?
Statistics don’t matter here, most don’t anyway. The Nets as currently constructed, with Kyrie Irving playing home and away games, are pretty darn good. As a duo, they have a plus-13 net rating.
But their starting lineup is a meager +1.4 per 100 possessions since February 14. Their offense is basically “throw it to an All-Star, move around, and be ready to catch or cut.” Their defense is “when we get the ball on offense, throw it to an All-Star, move around…”
I’m only partially kidding. They have played good defense plenty of times this season. But lately it just gets more lax when it’s clear the offense is humming. They earned the seventh seed by beating the Cavs, who were missing their best player, in a closer-than-it-should-have-been-game. It was like a predator playing with its food, but the predator wasn’t that hungry.
That’s my biggest Nets concern. They were heavy favorites when the season began, and now they know how unlikely it is for them to be crowned champions. Remember what it took for the Bucks to recover from 0-2 deficits against the Nets, and then the Suns? They had to bite, claw, and scrap. Are they really prepared to nearly die trying to win every game? I suspect Kevin Durant knows exactly how much work that will be, and I wonder if he believes the Nets are made of that same stuff.
When will Robert Williams III be back?
The Celtics, meanwhile, took some tough coaching from first-year coach Ime Udoka (my pick for Coach of the Year) and turned a lost season into a memorable one, no matter what happens from here. They were rolling until they lost their shot blocker in Williams to a knee injury, which could have a serious impact on this series. If he were healthy, it would be easy for me to pick the Celtics. Now there are reports Williams could return late in the first round, or early in the second.
Can the Celtics grab a late lead?
The Nets with a fourth-quarter lead are sublime, as Cleveland learned Tuesday night. Forced to speed up the game to catch up, Durant and Kyrie are too good, too smart, and too polished to make more than a mistake or two. Mostly their team will get wide open dunks and 3s because of either star. They are also capable of going nuclear in any quarter, because both guys can make more tough shots and earn open ones better than nearly any opponent they will face. Kyrie and KD went eight for eight in the first period and their team raced to a 40-20 lead. That’s going to be their recipe in this series, hope they get hot, hope the opponents are cold, then fight to stay in control until the middle of the fourth, when they can kill games better than any team east of Phoenix.
How will the Celtics guard Kyrie Irving?
The Celtics like to switch all screens, even without Williams to help at the rim. In a way, that’s good for the Nets, I’m sure Kyrie would rather face Al Horford than Marcus Smart. But the Celtics are packed with capable defenders. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are high-level defenders as well, and can make either Nets star work. I expect the Celtics to mix coverages more than they did during the season, thinking that less predictable schemes might add a little doubt into the Nets’ scorers’ minds. In the fourth quarter of their last matchup in early March, Boston switched on screens, but sent a quick double if Kyrie got a favorable matchup, like on backup guard Payton Pritchard. Kyrie can get casual as a passer sometimes, which can lead to deflections or turnovers, (or, of course, easy buckets for the Nets when Kyrie is more alert, which I expect him to be).
How will the Nets defend the Celtics?
Durant is an excellent defender and does his best work against impatient scorers. The Celtics’ scorers need to shot fake him to take away his incredible timing blocking shots. Same with Nic Claxton. The Nets protect the rim quite well, as do the Celtics. Sometimes the Nets like to turn games into shooting contests, but this is the wrong opponent for that. The Celtics led the league in 3s per game, and were second in 3-point percentage since Valentine’s Day. (The Nets were also excellent, fourth in the league.)
Will Ben Simmons play?
The word is that Ben Simmons might return to action in this series. Don’t expect it to mean much. His on-ball defensive talents should return quickly, and that can absolutely help. But it will likely be mitigated by his off-ball lateness and offensive rust. Imagine not driving for a year then suddenly being asked to drive a taxi in Rome or Manila. Simmons is a veteran but he isn’t like LeBron or Durant, there is a catch-up curve that would be far better served if it happened weeks ago. Boston would be wise to target him away from the ball and then seek to hammer his mistakes.