Sports

Can Anyone Stop These Boston Celtics?

They’re flummoxing the star-studded Brooklyn Nets with hypnotic, exhilarating play.

Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown walking down the court, a play drawn up with Xes and Os illustrated behind them.
These guys have been looking dominant. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Any basketball fan will tell you that a major key to postseason success is the ability to make adjustments. In my previous dispatch as Slate’s NBA playoffs correspondent I refrained from extensively discussing the Boston Celtics–Brooklyn Nets 2–7 series for a few reasons, but mostly because they’d only played one game, and it would have been reckless to attempt to draw conclusions from such a small sample size, especially in a matchup of such formidable teams that’s so rich with potential implications. Now they’ve played two games, though, which means it’s well past time to recklessly attempt to draw some conclusions. Here’s one: Good lord, the Celtics’ defense. Here’s another: The Nets are in trouble.

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Last Sunday the Celtics stole a Game 1 victory from the Nets, winning by 1 point on a frenetic, spinning Jayson Tatum layup as time expired. That contest was pretty much the definition of an evenly matched game. Wednesday’s Game 2 was more of a see-saw affair: Brooklyn stormed out to a 9–0 lead and went up by 17 in the second quarter, with much of the first half feeling like a game on the brink of being blown wide open, and maybe the series as well. But the Celtics kept doggedly peeling themselves off the canvas and had closed the gap to 10 by halftime, then to 5 by the end of the third.

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Then the fourth quarter happened, and a shifting tide became a pummeling wave. The Celtics outscored the Nets 29–17 in the fourth, and it wasn’t even as close as that sounds. They held Brooklyn to five field goals on 26 percent shooting, with two of those makes coming in the final minute, when the game was firmly out of reach. The Celtics swarmed, smothered, and engulfed Brooklyn; at times the fourth quarter felt like watching a driveway game of one-on-one where the big sibling just decides it’s time to stop messing around, that they’ve had enough. It was an utter domination, and if the Celtics can consistently assemble stretches like that throughout the postseason, I’m not sure there’s any team that can beat them in a seven-game series. The fact that they did it without Robert Williams III, the team’s electrifying young center who’s currently recovering from knee surgery but looks to be rejoining them very soon, is more than a little terrifying.

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The most striking thing about the Celtics’ defense—the best in the NBA by a considerable margin since the team’s post–New Year’s turnaround—is just how much fun it is to watch. Many NBA fans of a certain age still associate great defensive teams with bruising and debilitating slog. The 1990s New York Knicks, for example, or the 2000s Detroit Pistons, fought wars of attrition so grinding that they might as well have been playing at the Somme. The Celtics don’t shy from physicality, but their defensive strategy relies on near-constant switching, meaning that rather than fighting through screens or other actions to stay on their man, defenders “switch” onto and off of offensive players in response to various movements. (This video has some nice examples if you really want to dig in to some film.) It’s an excruciatingly difficult system to master that requires constant quick-thinking, discipline, and communication, as well as having a roster full of players who are comfortable defending multiple different positions. But when executed with the Celtics’ precision, it’s hypnotic and exhilarating, a fluid and remarkably graceful machine fashioned to produce maximum disorder among the opposing team.

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As for the Nets, Game 2 could have only been demoralizing: Here was a game where the Celtics’ offensive stars had struggled to get going, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown going a frigid 8-for-25 between them over the first three quarters. The Nets’ role players, widely considered their weakness, had been fantastic, with forward Bruce Brown pouring in 23 and midseason buyout-market acquisition Goran Dragic giving them 18 points in 20 minutes off the bench. The game was Brooklyn’s for the taking, and then the Celtics forcibly took it from them.

A lot of commentary has focused on the Celtics’ defense on Kevin Durant. On Wednesday night, TNT’s announcing crew wondered aloud multiple times if this was the best defense any team had ever played against the all-world forward. Durant is one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, and I can only imagine he’ll find a way to get back on track. The solace for Celtics fans is that their own ascendant megastar forward, Jayson Tatum, shot the ball uncharacteristically poorly as well, finishing last night 5-for-16 (albeit with a few huge baskets down the stretch), and will also almost certainly bounce back.

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Another looming question for the Nets is their second superstar, Kyrie Irving. In 2022, it’s no longer a “take” to point out that Irving isn’t a particularly reliable player. He’s never shown a consistent ability to stay on the floor, whether due to injury or personal choice, and he’s always been prone to unusual highs and lows for a player of his rare ability. On Sunday, Irving was transcendentally brilliant for 47 minutes before egregiously mismanaging his team’s final possession. On Wednesday he was a nonfactor: The 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting is what it is, but far more damning is the fact that, on a night when his partner Durant was struggling to find good shots for himself, Irving tallied only one assist in 40 minutes of play.

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After Saturday’s Game 3, the remaining games of this series have only a single day off in between each, a taxing schedule for a player like Irving who’s accustomed to rest. The Nets will allegedly be adding Ben Simmons to the mix for Game 4, a guy who wasn’t exactly last seen making positive contributions to a fourth-quarter offense. There’s certainly a chance the Nets storm back into this series, and that come Tuesday we’re heading back to Boston tied up at 2–2. But through two games, one of these teams has looked resilient, resourceful, unified, and most recently, totally dominant; the other will tell you that there’s still a lot of basketball left to be played. Right now, which one do you trust?

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