Celtics Playoff Preview: Are the Celtics ready for playoff basketball?

The painfully slow crawl to Sunday’s Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series between the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets is almost complete.

For only the second time in 11 days, Jayson Tatum will be on the court for a basketball game. After all the hype surrounding this unique 2-7 matchup, we’ll finally get some actual basketball to dissect.

We’ve maintained this week that the Celtics should feel confident about their chances in this series. Boston went 31-10 over their final 41 games – a half season worth of action – while posting the NBA’s best offensive (119.2), defensive (105.7), and net (13.6) ratings in the NBA over that span.

If the Celtics play the way they have the past three months, they should beat a Nets team that is top heavy with individual talent but hasn’t displayed the sort of defensive consistency necessary to thrive against one of the East’s elite.

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In fairness, the Nets were better at the finish line of the 2021-22 season than their season numbers reflect. In the 18 games since Kyrie Irving returned to a more full-time status on March 6, the Nets were 12-6 (Irving did miss a few games in mid-March) and Brooklyn owned the third best offensive rating (120.3) and 11th. best defensive rating (113.3) in that span.

More importantly, the presence of Kevin Durant gives them a chance every time they step on the floor.

The Celtics, though, should be the more talented team. They should be more motivated, too. Irving’s presence is a chance to show how far the “young guys” have come, the same group that so frequently got blamed for the team’s troubles during Irving’s tumultuous final season in green. Tatum has a chance to prove he’s nearing Durant’s level as one of the NBA’s elite stars.

A year ago, Ime Udoka was scheming up defenses to stop Tatum when these two teams met in Round 1. Now, his job is to flip the script. Can the Celtics dominate this series the way the Nets did a year ago?

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If they do, they’ll have to avoid some potential pitfalls. Here are three areas the Celtics must be attentive to in order to win this series:

Stronger in crunch time

In calendar year 2022, the Celtics played a league-low 15 crunch-time games (score within five points, final five minutes). They were a mediocre 7-8 in those tilts and the team’s offense routinely grounded to a maddening halt. Boston’s crunch-time offensive rating of 93.8 ranked 26th in the NBA in that span.

Whenever the Celtics weren’t stomping teams, they were struggling. Starting with a mid-March loss to the Mavericks, the Celtics were a cringing 1-4 in clutch games over the final month of the season. The team’s offensive rating plummeted to 73.7 in those games (with a net rating of minus-26.3). The Celtics wilted against playoff-caliber foes like Dallas and Miami in national-TV matchups. Some shorthanded losses to Toronto and Milwaukee were a little easier to dismiss without Tatum on the floor.

The Celtics, for all their glossy second-half numbers, never really showed a sustained ability to win close games. In the playoffs, every game feels like a crunch-time game. Boston’s offense simply has to better in those moments. The Nets, despite their warts, were 22-20 in clutch games but owned a net rating of 9.1 and ranked sixth in the NBA in clutch offensive rating (112.7).

Don’t play the Nets’ game

The Nets topped the NBA in isolation possessions per game at 11.9, or 10.8 percent of their total finished offensive plays. When you have players like Durant and Irving, you can get away with that, and the Nets’ 1.01 points per possession in isolation ranked third best in the NBA.

The Celtics’ offense, meanwhile, thrived late in the season because every player from top to bottom embraced sharing basketball. Boston’s assist percentage spiked and the team routinely put up gaudy assist totals as the Celtics’ offense surged to the most efficient in the NBA.

When you’re playing against an iso-heavy team, it’s easy to get sucked into playing that game. Tatum and Jaylen Brown cannot try to win 1-on-1 battles with Durant and Irving. The Celtics have to stick with what got them here and that’s Udoka’s core philosophies: Gritty defense and ball movement.

Tatum seems well aware that he can’t get drawn into going punch-for-punch with Durant.

“I guess not trying to make it a 1-on-1 thing,” said Tatum. “Obviously, everybody knows who Kevin is and the things he’s accomplished and what he brings to this game, but it’s a team sport.” Obviously, he’s the focal point of their team and you got to compete and game plan and things like that to make it tough for him. That’s a tough task but looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun.

“I think playoffs is that time of the season, myself and the rest of the guys, are just excited. We had a really good season and just trying to carry the momentum into the postseason.”

Role with it

While not overflowing with depth, the Celtics do have an advantage in this series if the team’s role players continue to perform like they did after the All-Star break. Payton Pritchard shot 47.3 percent on 5.1 treys per game in 24 post-All-Star appearances. Derrick White, acquired at the trade deadline, looked far more comfortable later in the year and started seeing more shots fall. Grant Williams endured a bit of a shooting funk after sizzling for most of the season but he can impact the game from beyond his corner office.

Homecourt advantage should help Boston’s role players, too, as history suggests bench players perform better at home, especially in the postseason. The second unit had less fumbles taking the baton from the starters late in the 2021-22 season and that needs to continue, even if Udoka is likely to lean harder on his first five in the postseason.

Udoka, too, will be challenged to make quicker decisions about personnel and schemes. It’s his first trip through the postseason in the big chair but he must be ready for the chess match that awaits.

If the Celtics are crisp in those areas, it feels like they could run away with this series. If they are not, things could get interesting.

Prediction: Celtics in 5

Note: Games 2-6 of the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics series will be aired exclusively 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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