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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Celtics Advance to Second Round After Sweeping Nets

I am often skeptical of the "team no one wants to face" cliche. This year's "team no one wants to face"--the team that the reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks apparently did not want to face in the first round--just got swept. Perhaps everyone should have wanted to face the Brooklyn Nets and their mismatched roster that has shooters who lack size and players who have size but lack shooting touch. The notion that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could somehow lead this crew past a balanced, deep, and talented Boston team was as wrong as it was short-lived. The Celtics were perhaps the best team in the league over the last 40 games or so, and on Monday night they ended the Nets' season with a 116-112 game four victory.

Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 29 points before fouling out with 2:49 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Celtics ahead by six, 109-103. The Celtics spent the rest of the game using most of the shot clock on each possession as opposed to running their offense, but they found just enough points to keep the Nets at bay. Jaylen Brown (22 points), Marcus Smart (20 points, 11 assists), Grant Williams (14 points), and Al Horford (13 points) rounded out a balanced attack comprised of players who can score in multiple ways and who can defend multiple positions. Durant scored a game-high 39 points in 47 minutes, but he shot just 13-31 from the field as the Celtics made him work hard for every shot attempt. Irving, J.J. Redick's favorite ball handling wizard, could not conjure up enough points (20 on 6-13 field goal shooting) or assists (five) to extend Brooklyn's season for even one more game.

After I wrote my recap of Boston's thrilling 115-114 game one win over Brooklyn, a reader questioned my rationale for picking Boston to win the series, and I responded, "The Celtics are potent both offensively and defensively, so the Nets are either going to have to hold them underneath 110-115 points or else find a way to score more than 110-115 points in four games." My prediction that the 110-115 point range would be a key benchmark for this series proved to be prophetic: the Celtics scored 115, 114, 109, and 116 points in the four games, while the Nets scored 114, 107, 103, and 112. The average score in the series was 113.5-109.

Much has been said and written about Ben Simmons' absence from this series--a subject that I will discuss in a separate article--but the Nets' problems run much deeper than his unavailability. The Nets made the playoffs in 2019 with a young roster led by Coach Kenny Atkinson, but instead of developing that team organically the Nets acquired Kevin Durant--who missed all of the 2020 season due to injury--and Durant's buddy Kyrie Irving, who played in just 20 regular season games before the Nets were swept in the first round by the Toronto Raptors. 

Before even finding out what a full season with Durant and Irving might look like, the Nets--acting like putting together a championship is as simple and quick as making "Minute Rice"--acquired James Harden from Houston to assemble a "Big Three." In the Harden deal, the Nets traded away three first round draft picks and four first round draft pick swaps, plus Jarrett Allen, who made the All-Star team this year with the Cleveland Cavaliers and who could have provided the inside presence that the Nets so desperately need. During Harden's brief Brooklyn career, the Nets went 1-1 in playoff series and 4-4 in playoff games. Atkinson resigned before the end of the 2020 season. Jacque Vaughn finished the season as the interim coach, and then the Nets hired Steve Nash, who had a connection with Durant dating back to Nash's time working for Golden State while Durant led the Warriors to two titles.

Irving missed the first part of the season due to his refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and he missed most of Brooklyn's home games because he did not comply with New York City's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Harden became disenchanted in Brooklyn this season, and quit on the Nets just like he previously quit on the Rockets, so the Nets shipped him to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond. Getting rid of Harden is addition by subtraction--particularly since it also enabled the Nets to improve their depth with Curry and Drummond--but Simmons not appearing in a single game for the Nets was the final blow for the Nets. The "Minute Rice" approach of trying to just throw talent together while treating the regular season like it does not matter backfired, and led directly to the humiliating sweep at the hands of a Boston team built the right way.

Durant had an excellent season even as the Nets struggled to make the playoffs, but he had a subpar series by his lofty standards. However, it is silly to suggest that the Nets' disappointing season and this first round sweep in any way diminish what Durant has already accomplished, which includes winning two NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, one regular season MVP, and four scoring titles. Yet, it is worth mentioning that Durant fled Oklahoma City to join the Golden State team that had just beaten his Thunder in a seven game playoff series, and then he fled Golden State presumably to prove that he did not need the Warriors' preexisting championship culture to lead a team to a title. It is not clear what situation, if any, would fill whatever void is missing for Durant.

Faulty and frantic roster building doomed the Nets, but Steve Nash's coaching did not provide any advantages, to put it mildly. The Nets never formed a defensive identity, and their offensive identity consisted of Durant or Irving dribbling until deciding to shoot or pass. There was little off ball movement, little coherent structure, and not many tactics that either lightened the burden on the stars or helped the role players to be more effective. This should not be surprising considering Nash's history, because his playoff failures as a player mirror the Nets' playoff failure this season in terms of lack of offensive structure combined with lack of effective defense.

Before Steve Nash was an NBA head coach, he was the point guard for Phoenix Suns teams that scored a ton of points without much offensive structure, and without paying particular attention to defense. Suns fans may never quit whining that the NBA stole a championship from their team in 2007 by suspending Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for game five of the San Antonio-Phoenix series, but the NBA's rule prohibiting players from leaving the bench during an on court altercation is a good rule and the NBA applied it correctly in that situation. During a recent interview on Sirius XM NBA Radio, former Sun Shawn Marion admitted that the 2007 Phoenix Suns lost because they ran a simple offense that was easy to defend against, and not because of the game five suspensions. Marion said that he knew during that season that the Suns were not going to win the championship, though he added that he thought that some of the other Suns' teams from that era had a better chance to win the championship than the 2007 squad. It is not clear which Suns team Marion thought could/should have won a title; the 2005 Suns lost 4-1 to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, and the 2006 Suns lost 4-2 to the Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. All of those Suns teams ran predictable offenses that relied on talent more than tactics, an approach that worked better against inferior teams during the regular season than against elite teams during the playoffs.

After the Suns won game four versus the Spurs in 2007, I wrote, "The reality is that injuries, foul trouble and suspensions are all part of the game. The 1972-73 Boston Celtics went 68-14 and then lost in the Conference Finals when John Havlicek suffered a shoulder injury; they went on to win two of the next three championships. In other words, the cream rises to the top. The Spurs and Suns have each been contending teams for several years already. The Spurs have won three championships and the Suns have not won any." That year, I not only correctly picked the Spurs to beat the Suns in six games, but before the playoffs I correctly predicted that the Spurs would beat the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

Prior to game five of the 2007 Spurs-Suns series, I wrote, "Game Five is a golden opportunity for Nash to outduel Tim Duncan, who in addition to also being a two-time MVP is a three-time Finals MVP. If Nash really is the best player in the game then this would be a good time to show it." The Spurs won 88-85. Tim Duncan scored 21 points on 7-14 field goal shooting while grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds and tallying a game-high five blocked shots. Nash had 19 points and 12 assists but he shot just 6-19 from the field.  

The point of that trip down memory lane is that Nash's Suns lost because their offense was too predictable, and their defense was non-existent in critical moments. The same can be said of Nash's Nets. The unanswered question is what will the Nets do to create a different outcome next season?

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:21 AM



At Tuesday, April 26, 2022 9:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


U was right David Celtics had a better team

This was a weird sweep Celtics didn't blow them out in any games

Usually in a sweep that happens a time or 2

And nets roleplayers out performed they stars.

Kyrie and kd was not good kyrie avg 19 ppg in the series

Disappointing they disappeared in big moments too often nets ran no offense be.

Pick and roll, back cuts, ball movement was non existent

They was iso or die.

Celtics defense was great and they ran a offense

Tatum and brown took they games to the next level

I remember when folks said they nothing but a taller version of Lowry/ DeRozan cj McCollum/dame

I think they was wrong bad

Both them are great offensive players and elite defenders.

Celtics look like team to beat in east with Miami

Nets I'm assuming u paying kyrie the 230 million u bringing kdd and Ben back it depends the other guys they bring in

Right now them and clippers are the worst free agent super star signing last 26 years

Shaq to lakers in 1996 -04 3 nba titles

Lebron heat 2010 to 2014 2 titles

Kd to warriors 2016 to 2019 2 titles

Lebron to la 2018 to present

1 title

Kawhi Paul George clippers 2019 to present 1 conference finals appearances

Kd and kyrie nets 2019 to present 0 conference finals

So they need a title to validate run

David what's ur take on Jayson Tatum Kobe comparison

Kobe in my top 5 all time no one will ever come close to touching him

But is Tatum the closest u seen on both ends

And others

Aren't dominant on both ends

At Tuesday, April 26, 2022 3:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It was a strange sweep in the sense that the games were close, but anyone who watched the entire series with understanding could see that the Celtics are the superior team. They could play best of seven, best of nine, or best of whatever, and the Celtics would win (not every game, but every series).

I would not say that the Nets' role players outplayed the stars. It would be more precise to say that the Celtics made the Nets' stars play in a crowd because the Celtics were confident that by doing so they could hold Durant and Irving combined to 60 points or less without giving up more than 50 points to the others. Bruce Brown or Goran Dragic might have a good game by their standards, but there was no way that the Celtics were going to give Durant and Irving an efficient 70+ points and have Brown or Dragic scoring more than 40 combined. Putting Durant and Irving in a crowd meant that guys like Brown and Dragic would have some opportunities. Give Brown and Dragic credit, but the Celtics were not worried about Brown or Dragic beating them.

Yeah, "Iso or die" is a good way to describe the Nets' offense. It may look great against Orlando in February or March, but it will never work against elite teams in April, let alone May or June.

I picked Milwaukee to win the East, but I agree that Boston and Miami look tough. I will make my specific second round predictions when the matchups are set.

The Nets' problem is not that they signed Durant, but rather that part-time Irving was essentially a package deal with Durant, who might have gone somewhere else if Irving did not convince him that they should go to Brooklyn together. The Nets also gave up way too much to get Harden, and it is not clear how Simmons will fit into the mix.

I like Tatum's game a lot, but his body type and game are more like Durant's than Kobe's. I am not putting Tatum in Kobe's class until I see more, but Tatum is in that top five MVP conversation now and for the foreseeable future. I can't put Tatum ahead of Giannis just yet, but if someone said that Tatum is the second best all-around player in the NBA right now I would not consider that an outrageous statement. LeBron can't do it every night any more, Jokic is not an elite defender, I've always thought Embiid is missing something, and Tatum just outplayed Durant in a best of seven series.

Kobe was a mentor figure for Tatum (and other current players, too).


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