Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Nets escape with win in play-in tournament but must eye Celtics with a mix of confidence and caution

NEW YORK — It was Kevin Durant himself who asked the first question at his post-game press conference on Tuesday: “Yo, what did Bruce Brown say when he got up here?”

Forty-five minutes after the Brooklyn Nets earned the No. 7 seed with a 115-108 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in opener, Durant said that his teammate had “said something I didn’t like. Somebody just told me.” 

The quote that irked Durant came in response to an innocuous question: What is the key to slowing down the Boston Celtics in the first round? 

“I mean, we can’t let [Jayson] Tatum get 50, we gotta be physical with him,” Brown said. Then came the part that Durant would rather have gone unsaid: “Now they don’t have Robert Williams [III], so they have less of a presence in the paint and we can attack Al Horford and [Daniel] Theis. So them not having Robert Williams is huge.”

“All right, man,” Durant said. “That’s caffeine probably talking. He takes some before the game. Them two dudes can do the same stuff. It ain’t going to be that easy, I’ll tell you that.”

When a reporter asked Durant about their upcoming opponents, he kept it simple: Brooklyn has to stay disciplined, play together and play with passion. Rather than talking about strategies the Nets might use against Tatum, he said that they just have to play hard and “see what happens.”

Durant did not appear to be furious with Brown. The vibe was come on, man

“We respect our opponents,” Durant said. “No need to talk about, you know, what we’re gonna do to them. I just don’t like that, you know? But that’s just how Bruce is. You know, he comes in and he says that. He keeps the same energy throughout the whole season, so. 

“But no need to say shit like that. Let’s just go out there and hoop.”

It is unclear whether Durant and Brown disagree about the Nets’ chances in their first-round series or merely about what they should and shouldn’t say to the media. It is appropriate, though, that Brooklyn expressed both confidence and caution after a game — and a regular season — that provided plenty of reasons for both. 

The Nets led 40-20 at the end of the first quarter, then scored eight points in the next 10 and a half minutes. They were up by as many as 22 in the third quarter, only to allow Cleveland to get within six in the fourth. 

For Brooklyn, It’s awesome that centers Nicolas Claxton and Andre Drummond combined for 29 points and 17 rebounds on 13-for-17 shooting, but it’s not ideal that guards Seth Curry, Patty Mills and Goran Dragic combined for nine points and one assist on 3-for-12 shooting. The poise that it took to finish off the Cavs would be more impressive if the Nets hadn’t squandered a big lead against the same team in the same arena four days earlier. At least this time they didn’t fall behind.

Cleveland was an elite defensive team for much of the regular season, but its success was predicated on All-Star Jarrett Allen and Rookie of the Year hopeful Evan Mobley locking down the paint. The version of the Cavs that Brooklyn beat at Barclays Center was not nearly as stifling, and the Celtics are about as stifling as it gets. Boston is far superior offensively, too. If the Nets needed 42 minutes apiece from Durant and Kyrie Irving to survive on Tuesday, what’s it going to take to compete with the Celtics on Sunday? 

Durant is right: It won’t be easy. Brown is also right: It would be much harder if Boston were starting the series with a healthy Williams. Your mileage may vary on just how vulnerable Horford and Theis are defensively, but neither of them can cover ground, block shots or catch lobs the same way that Williams does. For months, the Celtics’ defense looked nearly flawless with Williams on the floor; now there are at least a few pressure points for Brooklyn to poke at. 

Cleveland played what Nets coach Steve Nash described as an “extreme” style of defense. It stayed attached to Curry and Mills, completely sold out against Brown, Claxton, Drummond and Kessler Edwards and sent extra defenders at Durant and Irving. 

“At times, we did it great and punished them,” Nash said, pointing to Brown’s 18-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist performance and the bigs’ efficiency. “Moved the ball, played well stuck to our principles for a long stretch to get us that 20-point lead.” Nash then acknowledged that they “didn’t play our best basketball after that.” 

Brown noted that he “flirted with a triple-double” again — last Friday, he had 18 points, eight assists and 10 rebounds against the Cavs — and laughed. “I’m just making the right play, that’s all,” he said. The game is simple for him when the defense is leaving him open, packing the paint and allowing him to catch the ball with an advantage. Brown chalked up Cleveland’s comeback to Brooklyn’s “careless passes” and said that he “wasn’t too worried about it.”

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Irving made his first 12 shots and finished with 34 points on 12-for-15 shooting, plus 12 assists. Durant had 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting and 11 assists. Many of these were tough looks, some over multiple defenders, and the Nets would prefer not to rely on their superstars bailing them out. Their ability to do so, though, is why Brooklyn should still inspire a healthy amount of fear. Even if Boston’s switching shuts down most of the Nets’ pretty stuff, it will have to deal with Durant and Irving in isolation. When they’re hitting contested shots over fully extended arms, there’s not much anybody can do.

On the one hand, Brooklyn won its last four regular-season games, took care of business in the play-in and might be getting Ben Simmons back at some point in the first round. On the other hand, Simmons hasn’t played all season, Curry is playing on an injured ankle and, with the postseason upon us, Nash is still talking about building cohesion and learning how to play together. 

Boston, meanwhile knows exactly what its identity is and what the Nets are trying to do. Its coach, Ime Udoka, was on Nash’s staff last season.

“It’ll be a great challenge for us,” Nash said. “For a new group to go and play a team like that, that’s terrific at both ends, it’s going to be something that hopefully brings out the best in us.”

 And the Celtics don’t have Williams. That is huge.

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