Tonight, the 9-4 Brooklyn Nets travel to Boston to take on the 8-6 Boston Celtics at 7:30 P.M. This matchup hasn’t been kind to the Nets in recent years; they’ve won just one game in Boston since Garnett joined the Celtics, on February 27th, 2010, and Paul Pierce was a DNP that night.
But tonight’s different. The Nets aren’t armed with only Brook Lopez and a rag-rag group of dirty rags; they’ve got real basketball players in their starting lineup and a bench that’s been effective. This should be a tough matchup between two really good teams.
Joining me to talk Nets-Celtics tonight is CelticsHub blogger Ryan DeGama. I’d tell you to follow him on Twitter but he’s too cool to have a Twitter account, so just read him on CelticsHub because CelticsHub is a fantastic blog.
Ryan on the Boston Celtics
Devin: The Brooklyn Nets took down the Boston Celtics a week ago, 102-97, but both teams were without key players (Rajon Rondo for Boston, Gerald Wallace for Brooklyn). Do you anticipate a much different game tonight?
Ryan: Even in the preseason, the Celtics showed, if not a deferential attitude towards the Brooklyn Nets, then at least a sense they were not to be sneered at (Boston’s default position towards most of its opponents). So, expect the Celtics to play with an edge tonight. They’ll be focused on reestablishing their preferred pecking order in the Atlantic. Three things in Brooklyn’s favor: 1) Wallace could be a problem for Paul Pierce if he crowds him and forces him to his off-the-dribble game, which is on a gentle decline. 2) Boston is worryingly vulnerable to perimeter penetration this season, particularly out of pick and roll actions. 3) Rajon Rondo has a history of uneven performances against Deron Williams. Sometimes, he’s too up for that matchup and gets lost in the whole mano-a-Rondo thing.
Devin: Rajon Rondo is on an historic streak, with at least 10 assists in his last 37 games. While it’s astounding, I also wonder if it’s come from playing to the stats and not the game. Has his streak been a boon or a detriment to the team?
Ryan: Picking up from question #1, here’s the key piece in Boston’s favor: Rondo’s return. For a dude who’s only 26-years-old, he’s awfully concerned with his legacy and the mostly meaningless assist streak has been a periodic distraction (Celtics fans groan when he gives up clean layups to deal to a cutting big for a contested shot). But from an order-of-magnitude perspective, the Celtics will take the odd ego snafu if it means Rondo continues to create as many good looks as he’s done this season. Additional warning: You can’t go under the pick on him right now. Rondo is shooting 50% on long 2-pointers this season.
Devin: Right now, the Brooklyn Nets sit atop the Atlantic Division (neener neener). After roughly a half-decade of Celtics dominance, do the Nets and Knicks worry you, or are you confident in the Celtics over a full season?
Ryan: I see your ‘neener neener’ and I raise you an ‘arrogant confidence born of the last few years of Boston performances’. The Celtics regularly punt long stretches of the regular season out of either disinterest or a desire to save their creaky bodies for the playoffs. Here’s what makes it so effective: they do an incredibly convincing portrayal of a team well past its best-by date. This year is no exception. They have overpaid underperformers (Jeff Green), star player decline (Pierce) and this fresh new wrinkle of defensive incompetence. And yeah, I should totally be worried. But I’m totally not. Brooklyn or New York may win the Atlantic but right now, I’d put money on a Celtics-Heat ECF.
Devin on the Brooklyn Nets
Ryan: Brooklyn’s off to a promising start. How close are the Broolyn Nets to being a contender for the Eastern Conference title and what is their Achilles heel?
Devin: I still think they’re a step below. Before the season I argued that the Eastern Conference was 1) Miami Heat, and 2) about six other teams. The Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics are both in that second tier. The Nets have played really well so far; they began the season with a cakewalk schedule but have beaten some tough teams in the last two weeks, and even three of their four losses came in winnable games. I don’t think they’re close to the Heat, mostly because I don’t think anyone is close to the Heat, but I think they’ve got a really good shot at the second seed. And as Dallas taught us in the 2011 Finals, sometimes showing up begets surprise success.
As far as their Achilles heel, it’s probably still the defense. The bench mob has done an amazing job playing tough D — particularly Flail Boy Magic Mr. Floptastic Reggie Evans — but there are still a host of missed rotations and miscommunications in every game. You’ll see some tonight, for sure. It’s getting there — the system has certainly improved in recent games, and they’ve done an excellent job limiting opportunities against good teams — but it’s hardly the top-10 team that Avery Johnson’s shooting for.
Ryan: Brook Lopez has a 24.53 PER. What the hell?
Devin: He’s been fantastic. Really. Part of it is just developing this immediate chemistry with Deron Williams — 44 of Lopez’s 107 buckets this season have come from a Williams dish — but he also just looks healthy for the first time in years. He’s scoring through contact, destroying defenders in the post with his high hook, up-and-under, and feathery touch, and is just a half-step quicker overall than in previous years. Defensively, I think he’s slowed down a bit, as he’s not hedging pick-and-rolls hard as much as he did in the first few games, and guards are sneaking around him more. But given what I expected from him, he’s been all that and more.
Ryan: As a longtime Nets observer, how’s the whole Brooklyn thing sitting with you?
Devin: It’s surreal. I grew up in New Jersey and because of that have this innate sense of Jersey pride that’s impossible to shake. But Brooklyn is a completely different universe, both on and off the court. There’s a connection to this borough the Nets are fostering that was unheard of in East Rutherford & Newark. It’s certainly not all roses and sunshine — the Nets did force their way into a residential area and have left a permanently bad taste in some people’s mouths that won’t ever shake out. But in a borough with 2.5 million people, that’s bound to happen.
The fans have come together in spurts — The Brooklyn Chant has been mesmerizing in scattered doses — but Monday night’s victory over the Knicks was the first time it really came together. Brooklyn Nets fans came out in droves to outbellow Knicks fans. As a longtime New Jersey Nets fan, that’s insane. That’s never happened, ever. To hear Carmelo Anthony M-V-P chants shut out in a matter of seconds? By Nets fans? It’s All New really rings true now.