Looking Forward: Nets take on the Boston Celtics

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Opponent: Boston Celtics
Time: 7:30 PM
Location: Barclays Center
Watch: YES Network
Listen: WFAN

Sean Marks and company have moved beyond harping about lost draft picks. Instead, they’re focusing on building a team that looks a little bit like the Boston Celtics squad coming into the Barclays Center tonight. Sure, the Nets’ general manager purports to be importing a Spurs-lite culture, but squint, and you see the outlines of a Celtics-esque squad everywhere.

First, both teams have brought in coaches as comfortable with the clipboard as they are in the gym. Those promising out-of-timeout plays from coach Kenny Atkinson should remind Nets fans of the time Celtics coach Brad Stevens tortured the Nets with the “stack” play.

And while the Celtics are always prepared to take advantage of a team’s shortcomings, it’s player development that has this team poised to make the next step. Stevens has helped transformed Jae Crowder (who is expected to return to the lineup tonight) into a preeminent three-and-d wing, demonstrating patience when Crowder struggled from deep his first season in Boston (28% on 3 attempts a game). Today, Crowder is a high-volume bomber (43% on nearly 5 attempts a game) with some playmaking skills to boot, even keeping this Boston team afloat through some early season struggles. Look to this example each time you think Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is trying to do a little too much on offense.

Even then, Crowder is hardly the only example. Coach Stevens has greenlit big men like Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk to step out and become three-point marksmen themselves. This change had made life easier for the Celtics’ diminutive point guard Isaiah Thomas; just as Atkinson hopes Brook Lopez and Justin Hamilton’s three-point prowess might open things up for Jeremy Lin when he returns from injury.

And the high-pressure defense the Nets have installed is meant to have the same effect the overachieving Celtics did last season. Unexpectedly, the Celtics built the third-best rated defense in the league (99.6 points per 100 possessions) through grit and versatility. Their success was keyed on turnovers (16 per 100 possessions) and it was a combination of do-it-all bigs like Amir Johnson switching on command, and in-your-jersey defenders like Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart putting pressure on the ball, who drove that success.

This season, the Celtics defense has lagged, but it is steadily improving. One difference: the team is in the bottom third of the league in turnover percentage, while the Nets come in at 12th. But the Celtics are starting to find their footing, and can switch at ease, while the Nets count on traps, double teams, and scrambled rotations to right their ship. Neither team looks to drop back and let a ball handler get a head full of steam.

If the Nets are to have any success on defense, they’ll likely need bigs like the ones Boston possess, gifted with the foot speed to temporarily corral a point guard or wing ready to bust open a team’s defense.

So rather than focus on all those draft picks swindled from the Nets, look forward and see what Brooklyn’s new direction might bring.

What to Watch for in Nets-Celtics:
When these two teams last met, it was all Celtics until a furious fourth quarter comeback from the Nets’ deep reserves gave them a few opportunities to tie the game up. The Nets are hoping for a better effort this time around, and here’s how they can change things around”

1. Defense: On opening night, the Celtics gashed the Nets leaky defense for 122 points. Currently on a less-than-enviable streak of giving up 120+ points four games in a row, Boston is a prime candidate to tie the Nets’ franchise record of giving up five consecutive 120+ point games to opposing teams. When the Nets’ defense is clicking, it’s Trevor Booker or Rondae Hollis Jefferson finding the time to bump the man free off the double team rolling to the rim. Or Isaiah Whitehead or Brook Lopez hurrying off to make the next rotation and contest a three pointer — these are the plays the Nets have been lacking lately, and what they’ll need to compete with Boston tonight.

2. Will Brook Lopez bounce back? Lopez played easily his worst game of the season when these two teams played in Boston in October. He scored just seven points, converting a dismal 14 percent of his shots. The Nets will need a more efficient Lopez to show up tonight – like, say, the one who is shooting 40% beyond the arc his past five games. The Nets can’t afford a lackluster effort from both their stars on any night, and with Lin still recovering from a hamstring injury, they need a pristine Lopez nearly every night; his effort will be particularly crucial tonight.

3. Isaiah Whitehead: It will be a struggle for Whitehead on two fronts. On defense, he’ll take on a fellow Isaiah in Boston’s Thomas, who put up 25 points and 9 assists the first the time these two teams met. While under 6’0, Thomas combines strength, savvy, and off-beat ball-handling to display an effective herky-jerky game. If Whitehead can use his strength, and some discipline, he can help slow down the heart-and-soul of the Celtics’ offense.

On offense, look for Stevens to sic Avery Bradley on the Nets’ rookie ball handler. Whitehead is just learning the point guard position, so expect so see tons of on-ball pressure from the Celtics’ best defender. Whitehead will need to be careful with the ball if the Nets are to have a puncher’s chance tonight.