In their one game this season, the Brooklyn Nets took down the Boston Celtics 102-97 in Brooklyn, in a game that devolved into a "free throw defense" contest in the final minute. Despite the impetus to lend credence to that victory, it's smartest to throw that last matchup out the window. Both teams were missing key players -- the Celtics were down Rajon Rondo, the Nets Gerald Wallace. Rondo is more important to what the Celtics do and how their offense functions, but Crash's effort and impact defending Paul Pierce, who abused the Nets in their matchup two weeks ago to the tune of 22 points on 8-12 shooting and hit a key three late that caused Avery Johnson to go into panic free throw defense mode, should also prove key.
Since the C's traded for Kevin Garnett in 2007, the Atlantic Division has been Boston's domain. They've won a title, got to the Finals a second time, and advanced further in the playoffs than any of their division rivals in each season since. But with the re-tooled Nets, the finally-clicking Knicks, and the weird 76ers, the Celtics are actually fourth in the Atlantic Division, even with a decent 8-6 record.
That's not so much a knock on the Celtics -- an 8-6 record would tie them for first in two other divisions -- but an acknowledgment of the suddenly surging Atlantic Division, with teams led by players younger than Boston's core.
The teams match up in interesting ways. With Rondo and Jason Terry likely starting for Boston, the Nets have a matchup advantage when they've got their regular backcourt in. If Terry is stuck on Joe Johnson, Johnson can take him to town in the post, either backing him down in single coverage or drawing doubles inside to create space. If they switch Rondo -- a hounding defender for any wing -- onto Johnson, Deron Williams has a significant size-speed advantage against Terry. Gerald Wallace, of course, will play most of this game at Paul Pierce's hip, and I anticipate his success will be measured less on the quality of his box score and more on the quality of Pierce's. Brook Lopez took Kevin Garnett to task in their last matchup and his play hasn't suffered much on the road. Intrigued to see if he'll do it again.
As a whole, the Celtics are known for their defensive prowess; since Garnett joined the team in 2007 they've ranked 1st, 2nd, 5th, 2nd, and 1st in defensive efficiency by year. But this year, the team's fallen off a defensive cliff, currently ranking 22nd -- yes, twenty-second -- in the league in defensive efficiency. The Nets, conversely, rank 13th. Yes, it's as weird as it sounds: the Nets have played better defense than the Celtics this season.
After a rough 1-2 road trip, the Nets took full advantage of their homestand, winning all three games. Two of those games were against teams good enough to win. Now, the Nets kick off another three-game road trip with another team that's right in their competitive wheelhouse.
Should be fun!