2021 NBA first-round playoff previews: (2) Brooklyn Nets vs. (7) Boston Celtics

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·5-min read
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The Eastern Conference’s second-seeded Brooklyn Nets and seventh-seeded Boston Celtics meet in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. The Celtics beat the Washington Wizards in the play-in tournament.

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How they got here

Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn's three best players only played eight games and 202 minutes together, and they still finished a game out of first place in the East. As it turns out, when your three best players are named Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving — all among the handful of best pure scorers alive — each can carry the team by himself for a stretch, especially when the rotation is filled with quality players around them.

Irving is their third-best player, and he just became the ninth player in NBA history to join the 50/40/90 club. He is only the fourth to achieve that level of efficiency while averaging better than 25 points per game, joining legends Stephen Curry, Larry Bird and (wouldn't you know it) Durant. Think about that for a second.

The early season trade for Harden transformed the Nets into what Celtics coach Brad Stevens called this week "probably the most talented team that's been assembled since I've been in the NBA." It cost them Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, key contributors from past playoff teams, but Joe Harris, Jeff Green, Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet, DeAndre Jordan and Nicolas Claxton still made for a deep and talented rotation.

For good measure, the Nets signed six-time All-Star Blake Griffin on the buyout market. They added seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge for a handful of games, too, before a heart condition cut his career short. This is the luxury Brooklyn enjoys as a star-laden championship favorite in the NBA's biggest media market.

Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum's 50 points in Tuesday's play-in game got them here.

It has been a nightmare season for the defending Eastern Conference finalists. All-Star point guard Kemba Walker's knee injury sidelined him through December. Tatum tested positive for coronavirus in January. A calf strain kept Marcus Smart out all of February. The Celtics acquired Evan Fournier in March and almost immediately lost him to COVID-19. Jaylen Brown suffered a season-ending wrist injury in mid-April. And just to make matters worse, starting center Robert Williams re-aggravated his toe injury in the play-in game.

The result was a wildly disappointing 36-36 record, despite All-Star campaigns from both Tatum and Brown. An offense and defense that both rated fourth in the league last season fell under the weight of a relentless season to 10th and 12th, respectively, slimming the Celtics' margin for error. A bench that rotates through the likes of Tristan Thompson, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, Romeo Langford and rookies Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith was not nearly enough to stem the tide of injuries to Boston's best players.

The roster is littered with question marks beyond their two under-25 cornerstones going forward. And without Brown for now, their fate lies with Tatum's seemingly limitless scoring prowess and Walker's health.

Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving is just one problem facing Boston's Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. (Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving is just one problem facing Boston's Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. (Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

Head to head

Brooklyn swept its season series with Boston, 3-0.

The Celtics did not have Walker for either the first or third meetings and also didn't have Brown for their final meeting in late April. They had not yet acquired Fournier for the first two showdowns, both double-digit Brooklyn wins, and he was playing through lingering COVID-19 effects in the third. Robert Williams did not start any of the three games. The Celtics were never at full strength against the Nets and still aren't.

Here is all you need to know, though: Durant, Harden and Irving did not play together in any of the three meetings, and the Nets still swept the series. Harden was not yet on the team in their December meeting, Durant missed their game on March 11, and neither Durant nor Harden played in a closer win on April 23. Irving averaged a ridiculous 30-8-7 on 51/50/100 shooting splits in three games against his former team.

Closing lineups

Brooklyn Nets

Obviously, Durant, Harden and Irving will be in any closing lineup, if healthy. Harris should be the fourth man in, and the Nets can cycle just about anyone into the last spot. Green has most often gotten the call. Griffin is another small-ball big with some versatility to space the floor and defend multiple positions. Jordan and Claxton can combat bigger lineups as more traditional centers. Whatever route the first-year coach Steve Nash chooses, Brooklyn's closing lineup will be an offensive powerhouse with defensive limitations.

Boston Celtics

Tatum, Walker, Smart, Fournier and Williams is probably Boston's best option without Brown to close games. Rob Williams may not be available, either, which forces a choice between Thompson as the traditional veteran big or Grant Williams as a less battle-tested small-ball option. Neither team's closing lineups will have seen much time together all season, so expect both to toy with the center position.  

Matchup to watch

The extraordinary length and scoring abilities of Durant and Tatum make for an intriguing matchup, as does Harden's offense against Smart's defense, but Irving opposite Walker is fascinating on a number of levels.

Irving and Walker are quintessential New York City area point guards. Both are tremendously skilled with a flare for the dramatic necessitated by their undersized frames. Irving was selected No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft after an 11-game stint as a freshman at Duke. Walker went eight picks later after leading UConn to the NCAA championship as a junior. They have shared All-Star and All-NBA backcourts ever since.

Irving won a title in Cleveland, thanks to LeBron James returning to his hometown team, and Walker languished on a team owned by Michael Jordan in Charlotte. How might their careers have played out had they switched places? We do know the jovial Walker stepped into the mercurial Irving's role in Boston, where the latter disrupted chemistry before leaving and the latter was tasked with mending it upon arrival.

BetMGM series odds

Nets (-1400)

Celtics (+800)

Prediction

Nets in five.

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