It's no secret that the Celtics are the underdog going into their first round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. But, if Boston can use these for 4 keys to their advantage, they have a shot at taking down the heavyweight.
#1 - Re-Establish Defensive Identity
If you've watched any Celtics' games this year, you'll know that they've struggled immensely on the defensive end. Historically, in the Brad Stevens Era, the Celtics have been one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. But this season, this was clearly not the case. This year, the Celtics finished with a Defensive Rating (DRtg) of 112.5. Now, in case you are unaware, Defensive Rating is the estimated amount of points that a team gives up per 100 possessions. To give you some perspective: The 1996-97 Celtics had a defensive rating of 111.4, and they finished the season with an abysmal 15-67. It is worth noting that basketball has changed a lot since then, but it is still crazy to think that the Celtics are giving up more points per game than a team that won 15 games. Insane. In more present terms, the Celtics give up the same amount of points per 100 possesions (112.5) as the Detroit Pistons. You read that right. The 20-52 Detroit Pistons. How the Celtics fell so far defensively, your guess it as good as mine! Was it COVID? Was it the Smart Injury? Maybe we'll never know.
According to basketball-reference.com, Celtics' opponents this season shot an average of 34.3 3PA's per game, and made about 37% of their attempts. But, the Brooklyn Nets are above average in this case. In the 3 matchups with the Celtics this year, they shot about 34.5 3's per game, and made a staggering 43.7% of them. Below are the top 5 volume 3pt shooters on the Nets, and their respective percentages.
James Harden: 7.3 3PA/36%
Kyrie Irving: 7.0 3PA/40% (He was 50/40/90 club this year)
Joe Harris: 6.4 3PA/48%
Landry Shamet: 5.5 3PA/38%
Kevin Durant: 5.4 3PA/45%
Long story short, this team can SHOOT. Jeff Green (3.7 3PA/G) also joins Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, and Kevin Durant in shooting over 40% from downtown. The Celtics cannot afford to give Brooklyn as many looks as they are getting now from the 3pt line, especially their most efficient shooters. The Nets have shown that they can (and will!) kill us from deep.
Brooklyn finished top 5 in assists per game this season with 26.8 apg. Boston finished 25th. Here's an obvious statement: Brooklyn knows how to move the ball. Having two of the best ball-handling guards in the league is surely paying off. Kevin Durant is a great passer too. I'm no defensive mastermind, and I don't claim to be. Part of me wants the Celtics to stay home on defense, the other part wants them to go out of their way to contest! But I can say one thing for sure: Brad Stevens had better have emphasized defense in practices leading up to Game 1. Boston better find a way to get back to the strong defensive team that we all know they can be to even have a hope of taking this Nets series anywhere past 4 games.
#2 - No. Bad. Shots.
Having a solid defense against this Nets team is imperative, but the offense needs to be running on all cyclinders to take down this Eastern Conference heavyweight. This team is fully capable of doing so when they are playing Smart (no pun intended). But on the topic of Smart, let's start with Marcus. Yes, he is very important to this team, especially on the defensive end. But his shot selection on offense is what is questionable. You live by the Marcus 3, you die by the Marcus 3. He's shooting 33% from 3 this season, which is not great, especially compared to the guys on the other side of this series. Let's be real for a moment here: Marcus is going to take 3's and there's nothing we can do about it. All we do is hope that he plays Smart (again, no pun intended) and doesn't throw up a bunch of bricks like he does a little too often. I'm fine with him taking 3's every now and then. But if he knows they aren't falling, and we know they aren't going to fall, there is no reason why he should be taking them.
There's something I've realized that the Celtics do this season and it drives me absolutely insane! They run the Brad PnR action to get one of the ball handlers into the lane. Seems great, right? If you watch the Celtics, you know the play I'm referring to. Once the ball-handler (JT, Fournier, Kemba or Brown) get to the paint, they have a couple of options where they can go from there: 1: Shoot - a floater or a pull up will work. 2a) Lob - Will be hard without Rob but TT can get up occasionally. 2b) Kick out to ball/strong side. This is common, nothing wrong with it.
What our ball handlers seemingly love to do is to get too far into the paint, run into the "trees" and are forced to pass it out, sometimes even backwards, into a defender. I don't see the need to driving the lane just to kick it out to the place you just came from! Often, these passes lead to highly contested 3 pointers, or even worse, turnovers and a fast break for the other team! I don't see how hard it is to put up a floater or kick to the opposite side you're driving from rather than make a bad pass that can lead to an opponent score. This is the perfect example of what needs to be avoided - empty possessions where we fail to execute offensively and hand the Nets two points on a silver platter.
Playing the right rotations goes hand in hand with taking good shots. There should be a set 9 or 10 man rotation that Brad goes to, with very few exceptions. With JB out, it will probably look something like:
Rob Williams (when healthy)
Romeo Langford/Semi Ojeleye
(Add Luke Kornet if Robert Williams isn't healthy.)
This will likely be the 10 man rotation for the Celtics, and Brad Stevens should stick to it.
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
#3 - No Brooklyn Runs
Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving can each go on a run of their own whenever they want to. They have control of the offense, and can essentially do whatever they want. And I'm sure that Steve Nash will not be complaining when his team goes on a 12-0 run in the span of 90 seconds, even if they temporarily disregard their offensive gameplan. The important thing here for the Celtics is that they cannot afford to let Brooklyn have all the momentum behind them and let them go on a run to put the game away early. Unfortunately for Boston though, they've been known to give up runs to almost any team at any point, and Brooklyn will be sure to capitalize on the Celtics' poor defense, they did it when they played earlier this year. Boston has to do everything they can to get stops on defense, and get easy shots on offense to put an end to a Nets run before it even starts. Flipping momentum can be hard enough in the NBA, but against the Nets? That could be disatrous for the Celtics.
#4 - No Stupid Fouls, More Free Throws!
This is a important key to competing with the Nets. We need all of our guys down the stretch: that gives Brad flexibility on who he can play, and it doesn't give the Nets a mismatch that they can attack over and over again to close out the Celtics. It is worth noting that this would have been a bigger deal if the Celtics were playing the 76ers; Rob Williams fouled out in 14 minutes against Joel Embiid. But, the Nets, as we discussed earlier, are a very good shooting team, and that is no different for free throws. They shoot 22.5 FT's a game, and make 80% of them, putting them in 6th in terms of percentages. But, if you look at the roster, who can't knock down a pair of free throws? DeAndre Jordan and Nicolas Claxton are the only players shooting .500 or under; everyone else is above .735. In general, going back to Key #1, the Celtics need to do all they can to prevent the Nets taking any sort of shots, and that includes free throws. Limiting the Nets to less than 22 attempts from the free throw line per game would be ideal, we can't give the Nets any free points; they'll be scoring enough on their own.
On the flip side of this, the Celtics need to get to the line more. They shoot only 20 free throws per game on average, and they make only 78% of them. During the regular season, the Celtics did not drive to the rim as often as they should have, it wasn't even close. I'm looking at you, Jayson Tatum. He shot an average of 5.3 free throws/game this season. 5.3! But, if you look at the Celtics' first game of the play-in against the Wizards, Jayson Tatum shot 17/17 from the charity stripe! That's more than 3 times more than his average per game, and that's only 3 less than the team's average for the season! He drove the lane much more in that game, and because of it, got 17 attempts at the line, and on top of that, got Wizards big Daniel Gafford in foul trouble. It is worth noting that the Wizards run 3 bigs in their lineup, and they combined for 9 fouls.
In that game alone, the Celtics shot 27-32 from the line, which is just over 84%. Drawing fouls on Brooklyn's bigs will be extremely important for the Celtics in this series. Boston, alongside Jayson Tatum, need to drive the lane and get foul calls more often, rather than kicking it out for a poor 3pt shot like I mentioned in Key #2.
The Celtics have to do alot to compete with the Nets in this series. These are, in my opinion, the most prominent and glaring issues that need addressing. I fully believe that the Celtics can run with this Nets team, compete, and make this series worth watching.