Forsberg: Nets are ready for summer while the Celtics are just getting started originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
It’s one thing to win three straight playoff games against a quality opponent.
It’s quite another to erase one of the NBA’s greatest scorers so thoroughly that it sucks the entire life out of a rival and forces everyone else around the league to ponder the historical nature of your defense.
Call it a Boston Crab because the Celtics – on the strength of some newfound resiliency and an unrelenting defense – have the Brooklyn Nets ready to tap out of the postseason after taking a 3-0 series lead on Saturday night. This is one submission hold without an obvious counter.
The Celtics played defense at a high level over the final half of the 2021-22 regular season, lapping the field in defensive rating. But the general belief was that Brooklyn’s star tandem of Durant and Kyrie Irving would challenge Boston’s defense in a way few others had since mid-January.
Robert Williams shares his thoughts on his return in Game 3
They haven’t. And Irving and Durant look at a complete loss for answers. For all the consternation about what ails that duo, the Celtics deserve credit for how hard they’ve made things for Brooklyn.
Jayson Tatum has now defended Durant for 27 minutes of matchup time in this series. He’s allowed only 10 points over 121 possessions. Durant is 2-of-15 shooting with 10 turnovers and 2 blocked shots against Tatum.
Durant is shooting 36.5 percent on 17.3 field goal attempts per game overall. Every new game comes with the suggestion that a breakout is coming. But the Celtics have hounded Durant seemingly to the point of exhaustion.
And the bigger storyline here is Tatum’s emergence as a legitimate two-way force. And he gushes with pride describing Boston’s defensive approach.
“My message is, ‘Nobody plays harder than we do,’ “said Tatum.” I’m always reminding guys that whoever is on the floor, guys coming off the bench, that’s what I want people to think about. That we’re the hardest playing team in the league 1 through 15. “
Beyond their defense, the Celtics keep finding new ways to win in the playoffs. In the dazzling final minutes of Game 1, patience allowed Marcus Smart to find Tatum for a buzzer-beating layup. In Game 2, Boston clawed out of a 17-point hole and ran away with a dominant second half. During Saturday’s Game 3, the Celtics seized control late in the first quarter and then repeatedly stiff-armed any attempts to rally despite the fact that Brooklyn was a desperate team.
Tatum put up a slightly inefficient but extremely eye-popping stat line while becoming the first Celtics players since Dave Cowens to register at least 30 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals in a game. Tatum finished with 39 points, 6 assists, 6 steals, and 5 rebounds. Running mate Jaylen Brown (23 points on 16 shots) overcame a clunky start to dominate the fourth quarter for the third time in as many games this postseason.
Marcus Smart (14 points, 6 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks) did his usual Marcus Smart things. Robert Williams (2 points, 2 rebounds, 1 block) shook some rust and threw down one alley-oop lob. Payton Pritchard gave Boston an early offensive boost. Al Horford made a single shot and still made his impact felt. Grant Williams keeps playing inspired defense off the bench.
“I feel like we’re a complete team,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka, who has coached circles around his former boss, Brooklyn’s Steve Nash.
Irving likes to blame the Nets’ struggles on a lack of cohesion, something his vaccination status certainly didn’t help this season. Durant admitted he’s been overthinking everything in the playoffs. Nash wondered out loud if Ramadan fasting could be sapping Irving’s energy, too.
The Celtics have simply smothered Durant at every turn and he took just 11 shots in 46 minutes during Game 3. He added eight assists but the Nets could never get over the hump after kicking away an early seven-point lead.
Celtics legend Paul Pierce wondered out loud if Tatum might be “surpassing” Durant as one of the game’s elite in the aftermath of Game 3. Tatum was already knocking on the door for the conversation about the NBA’s top five players. Now, he’s playing with a Kawhi-like energy on both ends and kicking down that door. Tatum keyed Boston’s transition dominance with a career-best six steals in Saturday’s win.
Tatum wouldn’t take the bait when asked about his status among the game’s elite (“Honestly, that’s not something I’m thinking about,” said Tatum). Brown Eurostepped around a question about the struggles of Durant and Irving (“We just focus on us,” Brown said). Udoka implored his team not to play with its food with a 3-0 lead (“We don’t want to get off to slow starts and give them confidence,” said Udoka).
The Celtics will soon end the dysfunctional Nets’ season. The first-round triumph could give Tatum and Co. quite the confidence boost for whatever comes next.
There was consternation from a fan base that wondered if Boston should have downshifted with a chance to draw an “easier” team like Chicago in Round 1. The Celtics are being richly rewarded for not trying to game the system.
The Nets series has thrust Boston’s defense into a national spotlight. There’s still room to improve before we make comparisons to the likes of the 2004 Pistons.
But Tatum and Brown deserve the spotlight for what they are doing on both ends. Everyone was focused on the wrong star duo coming into this series.
Note: Games 4-6 of the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics series will be aired on NBC Sports Boston and can also be streamed on NBCSportsBoston.com or with the MyTeams App, which you can download below.
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