Celtics vs. Nets preview: Tatum-Durant duel highlights most-hyped Round 1 series

Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets posts up on Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics. The two will go head-to-head in Round 1 of the NBA Playoffs. (Adam Glanzman/Getty)

This is the most-hyped matchup in the East. The Brooklyn Nets have a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and they will be up against the hottest team in the league in the Boston Celtics. Give the Celtics credit — they had a chance to avoid Brooklyn if they tanked the last game of the season, but clearly do not fear this matchup. We'll see if that was confidence or hubris. 

Season series: 3-1 Celtics

Quick Tape

Celtics: 51-31 | No. 6 on offence | No. 1 on defence | No. 2 net rating

Nets: 44-38 | No. 13 on offence | No. 16 on defence | No. 15 net rating

Betting Futures

To win series: BOS -145, BKN +125 (Courtesy Bet365 at time of publication)

To win championship: BOS +700, BKN +850

Celtics starting 5: Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Daniel Theis

Celtics bench: Derrick White, Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard 

Nets starting 5: Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry, Bruce Brown, Kevin Durant, Andre Drummond

Nets bench: Goran Dragic, Nic Claxton, Kessler Edwards

Pulse of the Celtics

The Celtics have been the best team in the NBA in 2022. The Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks have a few more wins, but the Celtics have outscored opponents by over 12 points per game since the turn of the calendar and rattled off a stretch where they won 24 of 27 games to climb into the No. 2 seed. Losing Robert Williams to injury late in the season derailed their momentum to some extent, but there is optimism that Williams will take the shorter recovery route with his meniscus tear, and that he might even return at some point in the first round. Even without their shot-blocker, the Celtics are still incredibly formidable. Their defence is airtight, the ball is popping offensively, and Jayson Tatum is on the cusp of superstardom and ready to go toe-to-toe against Durant.

Pulse of the Nets

The Nets are better than their record would suggest, which is why most teams were so anxious to avoid them in the first round. Even after a 3-17 stretch brought about by Durant’s injury, the Nets still finished with 43 wins and comfortably qualified through the play-in tournament by leading wire-to-wire against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Durant and Irving are two of the most skilled players to ever play basketball, and although their supporting cast isn’t great, the Nets have gotten decent contributions from the likes of Andre Drummond and Seth Curry (who is still feeling the effects of an ankle problem), and there are still lingering hints that Ben Simmons might return at some point. Brooklyn’s defence is putrid and it will ultimately be their downfall, but they have too much firepower to be out of the game.

Key matchup to watch

Kevin Durant vs. Jayson Tatum: This has the potential to be a generational matchup. What’s great about this series is that the top two players have not shied away from playing each other, as Durant is the Nets’ only defensive option against Tatum, while Tatum has relished the challenge of going right back at KD. The slight edge should go to Durant simply because of his track record and how deadly he is as a jump shooter, but don’t be surprised if Tatum plays him to a draw. Tatum is a decade younger, and he’s got more help behind him. 

Nets win if …

Brooklyn isn’t going to surprise anyone. They will play through Durant and Irving, and if you choose to double them, the Nets are adept at moving the ball and getting it to either Drummond at the rim or one of their shooting guards on the perimeter. There isn’t one way to stop them, and most likely you will have to outscore them to win. Defensively, the Nets do not have good matchups against the Celtics, but if they force the ball out of Tatum’s hands, there is a realistic chance of upsetting Boston should their role players go cold. 

Celtics win if …

Boston should be the clear favourite and they should win if they just play their game. Tatum needs to play Durant to a draw, and the Celtics’ depth should win out from there. The Celtics have been incredible on defence, and while their switch-heavy approach does leave them vulnerable against elite isolation scorers, the Celtics still have two ideal matchups with Tatum guarding Durant and Smart checking Irving. On the flip side, Jaylen Brown should dominate his matchup against the shorter Bruce Brown, and Smart should be able to get into the paint to create if he’s largely being covered by Mills, Curry or Dragic. 

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