Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jayson_Tatum_(51839569977)_(cropped).jpg
Let it be known: the Celtics were never intimidated by the Brooklyn Nets. The players seemed amused that any of them would have rather faced a different opponent, especially the team that knocked them out of the playoffs in the first-round last year.
"(Heh) It’s funny to us, because we don’t duck or dodge nobody," said point guard Marcus Smart, who was named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year on April 18th.
“So many people thought that we should have tried to play somebody else in the first round," said fifth-year pro and budding superstar Jayson Tatum.
"We’re not scared of anybody," said first-year head coach Ime Udoka. "We’re not going to run from anybody." After defeating the Nets 116 - 112 on Monday night, the Celtics dismantled the Nets' title aspirations with a devastating first-round sweep and proved beyond a doubt that they are one of the best teams in the NBA. Behind Tatum, Smart, and sixth year forward Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are primed to make a run to the NBA Finals.
Despite being preseason title favorites, along with fellow all-time disappointment the Los Angeles Lakers, the Brooklyn Nets just never could find the rhythm and chemistry needed to stave off their eventual demise. Featuring two of the most gifted scorers in NBA history, in forward Kevin Durant and guard Kyrie Irving, many at the start of the season expected the Nets to cruise to the #1 seed in the East. When that didn't happen, and the Nets fell to the Play-In Game, just as many expected the Nets to still make a run. That didn't happen either.
Game 4 was another defensive showcase for the Celtics, who have been on a heater since January on that side of the ball. Durant still managed to put up 39 points in 47 minutes of play but required 31 shots to do so. This was just the latest game in the series in which the Celtics frustrated the 4-time NBA scoring champion.
Durant bounced back from scoring just 16 points in Game 3 Saturday night, but the rest of the Nets faltered. While Durant forced the issue in a valiant, but futile, attempt to avoid the sweep, fellow star Irving could only chip-in a quiet 20 points. As they have all series, the Celtics threw multiple defenders at both Durant and Irving, denying them the ball and capitalizing on turnovers by pushing the ball in transition.
Tatum led the way on offense for the Celtics, pouring in 29 points on 9 of 16 shooting. Brown chipped in 22 points and eight rebounds, while Smart scored 20 points and dished out 11 assists. Both continued the excellent two-way play that has become the calling-card of this Celtics team.
Udoka, in part, deserves a ton of praise for bringing the best out in this young squad. He was somewhat of an unknown coming into the season, and his career began with the peculiar news that former Celtics' head coach Brad Stevens would be stepping down as head coach and replacing the departing Danny Ainge as the General Manager of the Celtics. It was unusual to say the least, and the Celtics sluggish start to the season didn't help things in the PR Department.
The series victory has been a coming-out party for the Celtics, who began the year looking like the same team that disappointed in the previous campaign. After beginning the season with a 16 - 19 record, culminating in an ugly loss 82 - 91 to the Los Angeles Clippers, in which the Celtics shot an atrocious 4 of 42 from the 3-point line, the team turned everything around with a renewed focus on the defensive end and a superstar-leap from the 24-year-old Tatum.
Since losing to the Clippers, who were without superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as well as 2021 playoff-hero Reggie Jackson, the Celtics have gone from scoring 107.6 points per game (ppg) to scoring 114.9 ppg. Defensively, they've gone from allowing 107 ppg to allowing 102.6 ppg. Opponents have been shooting 37.9% from the floor in that same span. In the First Round versus Durant and the Nets, the Celtics held the 2014 MVP to 26.3ppg, 38.6% shooting, and 5.3 turnovers; that's down from 29.9 ppg, 51.8% shooting, and 3.5 turnovers in the regular season.
The Celtics are putting up incredible defensive numbers and doing it against the stiffest of competition. It's bringing to mind the incredible defensive effort of teams like the 2004 Detroit Pistons with Ben and Rasheed Wallace and the 2008 Celtics with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. This Celtics team may be in their best position in years to win the NBA Finals with their combination of elite defense, multi-faceted offense, and health.
Center Robert Williams, who had been out recovering from meniscus surgery on March 27, has returned to the lineup and looked spry as ever, contributing five points, seven rebounds and a block in 29 minutes off the bench over Games 3 and 4. Backups Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard and Derrick White have also been massive contributors to the team effort. The Celtics might be the heathiest, and hottest, team remaining in the playoffs.
In the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns led the NBA with 64 wins in the regular season but are dealing with the injury bug and a surprisingly competitive New Orleans Pelicans squad. Devin Booker, the Suns' three-time All-Star guard, strained his hamstring in Game 2 and will be out for the Suns' Game 5 matchup versus the #8 seed Pelicans, and could possibly miss more games than that. The Pelicans, meanwhile, have been without their precocious former #1 pick Zion Williamson. He has been absent the entire season except for a few vague and confusing videos of him throwing down 360-dunks in practice. The Suns took a 3 - 2 series lead on Tuesday night.
The Celtics' fellow Eastern Conference-opponent the Milwaukee Bucks just lost forward Khris Middleton with a knee sprain for at least the rest of Round One, although they hold a commanding lead after demolishing the Chicago Bulls in the United Center 119 - 95. The Philadelphia 76ers near closer to utter annihilation as they inch closer to NBA history as the first team to blow a 3 - 0 series lead. They are currently leading the Toronto Raptors 3 games to 2, with Game 6 coming up on Thursday night in Toronto. The Conference is wide open for this young Celtics teams
In completing one of the most impressive mid-season turnarounds in recent NBA history, the Celtics are finally cashing in on their massive potential. Tatum, Brown and Smart have all possessed, and displayed, the ability to be elite players in the NBA. With a stifling defense, timely contributions from a deep and versatile bench, and three emerging stars, this Celtics team is primed to continue in the long, storied history of the franchise.