When asked to pick the 2022 NBA champions back in October, 83% of the league’s general managers picked the Brooklyn Nets. And now, the Nets are the first team to be swept out of the first round of the playoffs.
It was a wild 6 1/2 months, culminating with a flawed and shorthanded team getting exposed in the postseason. The Nets had chances in Game 4 of their first-round series with the Boston Celtics on Monday, but just couldn’t get the stops they needed down the stretch. They were down two when Marcus Smart gifted them with a missed layup with 15 seconds left, but Al Horford tipped in the miss, with Kyrie Irving failing to box him out and Kevin Durant failing to run all the way back after going for a steal.
Here are some notes, numbers and film from the Celtics’ 116-112 victory that put them in the conference semifinals for the fifth time in the last six years.
1. Best team in the league, with room to grow?
Leading this story with the Nets may be burying the lead, because this series was more about the Celtics’ strengths than the Nets’ weaknesses and, simply put, Boston has been the best team in the league for three months now. After finishing the regular season with 26 wins in their final 32 games (ranking first in both offensive and defensive efficiency in that span), the Celtics are now the only team to sweep through the first round. And they swept a team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Durant struggled, shooting just 37% over the four games. His effective field goal percentage of 42.8% was his third-worst mark in 30 career playoff series, and he was certainly in his own head in Game 3. But the primary reason for his struggles was the Celtics’ defense. Led by Jayson Tatum, Boston gave Durant no space, making one of the greatest scorers in NBA history look mortal.
Boston ranks only eighth defensively in these playoffs (115.0 points allowed per 100 possessions) because other Nets shot well. But the primary task was slowing down Durant, and Boston did that as well as anyone could have anticipated.
With how well the Celtics have played since late January, it wouldn’t be crazy to call them a serious title contender. But there have been teams in the past that have looked this good through a series or two and then fallen short.
“One game at at time,” Jaylen Brown said. “You can’t get ahead of yourself. We’ve got a lot of guys that have had some runs in the playoffs, so we know how things can change, things can flip. Our mind set is key, coming in and being ready to play every single game.”
Marcus Smart is willing to poke his head up and see what else is going on around the league, but not necessarily with premature thoughts of raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“I definitely see the other series,” he said. “And to me, I think we’re not the best team. We still have a ways to go. We still have work. We don’t want to get too high on the highs, nor too low on the lows. So, when I watch the games, I’m watching it for, ‘We’re not the best team.’ And we have to play like that. We have to have the mentality that we’re not the best team, because once you get that mentality that you’re the best team, you start to get complacent and bad habits start to kick in.
2. A tightly contested sweep
This was a weird series in that the Celtics were clearly the better team, but won the four games by a total of just 18 points, the third-smallest margin of victory for a four-game sweep in NBA history.
For Brooklyn, the narrow margins can produce some what-ifs. What if Durant stayed with Tatum on the final play of Game 1? What if they didn’t blow a 17-point lead in Game 2? What if they didn’t commit 13 live-ball turnovers in Game 3? What if Nic Claxton didn’t shoot 1-for-11 from the free throw line in Game 4?
Despite Durant’s individual struggles, Brooklyn shot better than 50% in three of the four games. The Nets’ effective field goal percentage of 57.7% ranks second in these playoffs and was the highest for any team in a series in which it won fewer than three games in NBA history.
For the Celtics, the narrow margin is a testament to their growth. In the regular season, they had the league’s second-worst record (13-22) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. When they improved in the second half of the season, they just started blowing teams out, with only four of their 26 wins over those last 32 games having been within five in the last five.
But (though Games 2 and 3 barely brushed through “clutch” time) the Celtics are now 4-0 in games that were within five in the last five in the playoffs. They scored 25 points on 21 clutch offensive possessions and allowed just 10 on 17 clutch defensive possessions.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka focuses on the offense in regard to his team’s late-game improvement.
“I think a big part of it is us as coaches fine-tuning some things offensively,” he said. “We got a little stagnant at times late in games. The defense was always solid.
“We really found what we like to go to endgame-wise.”
Against this opponent and its less-than-stellar defenders, they had a myriad of options. The defending champion Bucks (up 3-1 on Chicago in their own series) are likely next, and that will be a bigger challenge. But the Celtics have been tested, and they’ve passed with flying colors.
“This was a very taxing four games,” Tatum said. “It took everything on both ends of the floor.”
3. Tatum takes another step
There’s no mincing words here: 24-year-old Jayson Tatum outplayed Kevin ****ing Durant over these four games. On one end of the floor, he was Durant’s primary defender. On the other end, Tatum averaged 29.5 points and 7.3 assists, capping the series with an efficient 29 points (on 9-for-16 from the field and 7-for-8 from the line) in Game 4 on Monday. He shot over any defender not named Durant or Claxton like there was nobody there:
And he made high-level passes after he drew help off the dribble:
Outplaying Durant in a series sweep is a nice little stepping stone for the Celtics’ budding superstar.
“It’s a good barometer, obviously,” Udoka said. “We’ve talked to him about being the guy every night he steps on the court. And you could tell he was extra motivated for this series and that matchup.
“I told him to go at certain guys and not to respect anybody too much, and relish those moments.”
“He brought the best out of me,” Tatum said of Durant. “I knew that I had to be on top of my game in this series. In the same breath, I wasn’t surprised at how I played. I do feel like I’m one of the best players. That’s how I approach the game when I step on the floor, regardless of who’s on the other team.”
4. What’s next for Brooklyn?
The Nets obviously have a lot of questions for this summer. Even if they were to have Durant, Irving, a healthy Joe Harris, and a healthy Ben Simmons next season, this series should make it clear that they need more size on the wing and more two-way players.
They won’t have any cap flexibility, yet they have just six players who are definitively under contract next season: Two starters (Durant and Seth Curry), two rookies that didn’t play in this series (Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe) and two guys who’ve been out for all or most of the season (Simmons and Harris). Irving, who has a player option for next season, made it clear that he plans to return, claiming that he and Durant will be “managing this franchise together, alongside [owner] Joe [Tsai] and [general manager] Sean [Marks].”
This shouldn’t be considered a wasted season, because every part of it was a data point that can be learned from.
“No regrets,” Durant said. “**** happens. No crying over spilled milk. It’s about how we can progress and get better from here. We see we’ve been through a lot this year. Everybody in the organization knows what we went through. So no time to feel regret or be too pissed off. It’s about how we can find solutions to get better, proactive, as an organization to get better.
“Even the great teams, they don’t dwell on what they do, they just try to continue to keep getting better. So for us, we know what our mistakes were, just try to turn them into strengths. But we can’t have no regrets on what we did. **** just played out the way it played.”
Given the profile of their three stars, the spotlight will remain bright on the Nets. Stay tuned…
5. Some time off … and then the champs?
The sweep allows the Celtics to get some extra days off, important for Robert Williams III, who played the last two games after returning from a four-week absence. Their opponent in the conference semifinals (where the Cs will again have home-court advantage) will likely be the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, who could close out their own first-round series against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday.
The Celtics were 2-2 against the champs in the regular season, with the home team winning all four games. The only meeting that took place after their Christmas meeting (and after the Celtics started their ascension) was a 127-121 Milwaukee win that Tatum, Williams and Al Horford all missed.
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By John Schuhmann