The most highly-anticipated first round series this year is undoubtedly the 2-7 matchup in the East that will pit the Boston Celtics against the Brooklyn Nets, who beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in Tuesday’s play-in to lock in their playoff position.
It’s a fascinating matchup for a number of reasons, including the familiarity of the Celtics with their former teammate turned rival, Kyrie Irving. What makes the series exciting is the known commodities. Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum are two of the best wing scorers in the world, and watching them go head-to-head is an absolute treat. Jaylen Brown and Kyrie Irving are as good as it gets as second stars, and Marcus Smart will be looking to wreak havoc on the defensive end.
Beyond that, both teams have some questions to answer and here we’ll explore the three questions that will determine the outcome of a series most sportsbooks have as close to a coin flip, with a lack of consensus on which team should be favored.
How will Boston protect the paint without Robert Williams?
Bruce Brown put this question front and center after Brooklyn’s win against Cleveland, saying matter of factly that Williams’ absence will allow the Nets to attack Boston’s other centers and get to the rim — a statement that displeased Kevin Durant.
— gary washburn (@GwashburnGlobe) April 13, 2022
Durant: “We respect our opponents. We don’t need to talk about what we’re going to do to them. I didn’t like that….We don’t need to say shit like that. Lets just go out there and hoop.” Woooof.
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) April 13, 2022
While Durant knows there’s no reason to provide additional bulletin board material for Boston, Brown is right that the time to get the Celtics is now in the first round when Williams will be out following knee surgery, leaving Boston without its best interior defender. Williams didn’t just anchor one of the NBA’s best defensive units at the rim — his ability to switch and move on the perimeter gave the Celtics a variety of looks they could throw at opponents to keep them on their toes. With Al Horford and Daniel Theis, Boston will likely need to play more drop coverage, which is a dangerous game against the pull-up maestros of Kyrie and KD. If the Celtics do try blitzing or switching with those slower bigs, there will be opportunities to attack them off the dribble with little in the way of rim protection on the back end.
Where Boston can paper over Williams’ absence is less with the players replacing him in the center rotation and more with their terrific wing and perimeter defensive options. Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, and Grant Williams are all going to need to expend a touch more energy on the defensive end to fight over and through screens, on and off the ball, to stay attached with Irving, Durant, Seth Curry, and Patty Mills. They must prevent their bigs from ending up on islands with some of the best isolation players in the world. The good news is they certainly have the ability to do that, but for Tatum and Brown in particular, how they keep their stamina up to be offensive engines when they have to be constantly engaged on the defensive end will be something to watch, particularly if the series wears on into a Game 6 or Game 7.
Will Ben Simmons return (and what does he look like if he does)?
The Nets reportedly hope to have Ben Simmons make his debut at some point during the first round, with the latest reports pointing to Games 4-6 as the target date for him to be on the court.
How that works in a playoff setting is going to be nothing short of fascinating. The Nets could absolutely use someone with Simmons’ size and speed in this series on the defensive end, because without him, Durant will have to spend a lot of time on Tatum. Brown is arguably the only other Net you could feel comfortable spelling him in that assignment. Simmons would, if physically up to speed, give Brooklyn the chance to matchup much better with Boston’s wings on the defensive end, and also allow the Nets to be less reliant on Brown to be the glue holding their defense together.
On paper, all of this is an improvement for the Nets, but there is still the issue of having Simmons play his first minutes since last June with a brand new team in a playoff setting. That’s not going from 0-60 but more 0-whatever the top speed is on a given vehicle, and for a Brooklyn team already a tad disjointed, adding another piece to figure out how to work with has the potential to gum up the works even more.
Still, for a team that runs as short a rotation as Brooklyn does, having another high-caliber player could be crucial, and if Simmons can simply embrace the role of Brown — just at 6’9 with more juice as a facilitator — then some of that awkwardness can be mitigated. The Nets stars are used to playing with someone lurking in the dunker’s spot and cutting off the ball, and that certainly seems like a great way to ease Simmons into game action, as much as you can do that in playoff basketball. For as unique a player as Simmons is, the Nets usage of Brown gives them a blueprint for the most basic way Simmons can operate as a small-ball big for them.
Where is Kyrie Irving’s stamina level at?
The pacing of this series sets up extremely well for the Nets out of the gates, because the teams will get two days off between Game 1 and Game 2, as well as Game 2 and Game 3. For Irving, who had a lot of stops and starts this season because he couldn’t play home games, he’s still maybe getting his sea legs under him for playing every other day. Having the two-day breaks early should help with his continued conditioning, but it also means the rest of the series from Game 4 on will be played every other night. We saw games this season where Irving was tired on back-to-backs and didn’t have the same lift on his jumper, coming up short over and over, and while there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, he’s going to be asked to play 40 minutes a night given the Nets short rotation (he played 42 in a sensational effort in the play-in) and how he responds physically if this series goes into deep waters will be something to watch for.