BROOKYLN — When asked to pick the 2022 NBA champions in October, 83% of the league’s GMs picked the Brooklyn Nets. And now, the Nets are the only team eliminated from the first round of the playoffs.
It was a wild six and a half months, culminating in a flawed and understaffed team 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 a missed layup with 15 seconds left, but Al Horford missed, with Kyrie Irving failing to box him and Kevin Durant failing to run all the way back after attempting a steal.
Here are some notes, numbers and video from the Celtics’ 116-112 win that put them in the conference semifinals for the fifth time in the last six years.
1. The 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. After finishing the regular season with 26 wins in their last 32 games (ranking first in both offensive and defensive efficiency over that span), the Celtics are now the only team to sweep the first round. And they swept a team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Durant struggled, shooting just 37% over the four games. His 42.8% effective field goal percentage was his third-worst mark in 30 career playoff series, and it was certainly in his own head in Game 3. But the main reason for his struggles was the defense of the Celtics. Led by Jayson Tatum, Boston gave Durant no room, making one of the best scorers in NBA history look deadly.
Boston ranks eighth defensively in these playoffs (115.0 points allowed per 100 possessions) because other Nets shot well. But the main task was stopping Durant, and Boston did it 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 serious contender for the title. But there have been teams in the past that have looked this good for a series or two and then fallen short.
“One game at a time,” Jaylen Brown said. “You can’t get ahead of yourself. We’ve got a lot of guys that have had some playoff runs, so we know how things can change, how things can change. Our mentality is key, to go in and be ready to play every game”.
Marcus Smart is willing to stick his head out and see what else is going on in the league, but not necessarily with premature thoughts of lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“I definitely watch the other series,” he said. “And for me, I think we’re not the best team. We still have a way to go. We still have work. We don’t want to go too high on the high points, or too low on the low points. So when I watch the games, I see him thinking ‘We’re not the best team’. And we have to play like that. We have to have the mentality that we are not the best team, because once you have that mentality that you are the best team, you start to get complacent and bad habits start to appear.
2. A hotly contested sweep
This was a rare series in which the Celtics were clearly the better team, but they won all 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-if situations. 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 turnovers in Game 3? What if Nic Claxton didn’t go 1-for-11 from the free throw line in Game 4?
Despite Durant’s individual struggles, Brooklyn shot over 50% in three of 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 they 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 second-worst record in the league (13-22) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. When they got better in the second half of the season, they just started crushing teams, with only four of their 26 wins in those last 32 games having come within five of the last five.
But (although Games 2 and 3 barely grazed “clutch” time), the Celtics are now 4-0 in games that were five of the last five in the playoffs. They scored 25 points on 21 offensive possessions and allowed just 10 on 17 defensive possessions.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka focuses on the offense regarding his team’s improvement late in the game.
“I think a big part of it is us as coaches adjusting some things offensively,” he said. “We kind of get stuck a little bit at the end of games sometimes. The defense was always solid.
“We really find what we like to go late in the game.”
Against this opponent and his less than stellar defenders, they had a wide variety of options. The defending champion Bucks (3-1 ahead of Chicago in their own series) are likely next, and that will be a bigger challenge. But the Celtics have been tested and have passed with flying colors.
“These were four very grueling games,” Tatum said. “It took everything on both ends of the floor.”
3. Tatum goes one step further
No finicky words here: Jayson Tatum, 24, has outplayed Kevin Durant in these four games. At one end of the floor, he was Durant’s main defender. At the other end, Tatum averaged 29.5 points and 7.3 assists, capping the series with an efficient 29 points (on 9-of-16 from the field and 7-of-8 from the line) in Game 4 on Monday. He shot any defender not named Durant or Claxton like no one was there…
And he made high-level passes after being helped by the dribble…
Beating Durant in a series sweep is a good springboard for the Celtics’ budding superstar.
“It’s a good barometer, obviously,” said Udoka. “We’ve talked to him about being the type every night he steps on the court. And you could tell he was more motivated for this series and that matchup.
“I told him to go with certain guys and not to respect anyone too much, and to enjoy those moments.”
“He brought out the best in me,” Tatum said of Durant. “I knew I had to be at the top of my game in this series. At the same time, I was not surprised by how I played. I feel that I am 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?
Obviously, the Nets have a lot of questions this summer. Even if they did 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 salary-cap flexibility, but they only have six players who are definitely under contract next season: two starters (Durant and Seth Curry), two rookies who didn’t play in this series (Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe) and two guys who have been out 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, stating that he and Durant will be “managing this franchise together, along with [owner] Joseph [Tsai] Y [general manager] be [Marks].”
This shouldn’t be considered a wasted season, because every bit of it was a data point to learn from.
“I don’t regret it,” Durant said. **** happens. Don’t cry over spilled milk. It’s about how we can progress and improve from here. We see that we have been through a lot this year. Everyone in the organization knows what we went through. So there is no time to regret or be too angry. It’s about how we can find solutions to improve, be proactive, as an organization to improve. Even the great teams don’t look at what they do, they just try to keep getting better. So for us, we know what our mistakes were, just try to turn them into strengths. But we can’t regret what we did. **** just developed the way it developed.”
Given the profile of their three stars, the Nets will continue to be in the spotlight. Stay tuned…
5. Free time… and then the champions?
The sweep allows the Celtics to get a few extra days off, a big deal 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 once again have home-field advantage) will likely be the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, who could wrap up their own first-round series on Wednesday.
The Celtics were 2-2 against the champions 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 began their ascent) was a 127-121 Milwaukee win that Tatum, Williams and Al Horford missed.