After two days of rest and a shootaround cancelled due to inclement weather, the 6-14 Brooklyn Nets take on the 10-12 Boston Celtics in Brooklyn tonight at 7:30. These two teams made a trade this offseason that you all know about by now, sending Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry south to Brooklyn for Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, and three first-round draft picks, and it’s the first time these two teams see each other in the regular season.
The Nets pushed for the trade in the hopes that it would make them contenders, the Celtics wanted to start fresh, add some draft picks, and sink like a stone to the bottom of the Atlantic. So far, they’ve reversed roles: the Nets have sunk in their first 20 games to bottom-four status in the East, while the new-look Celtics just crushed the New York Knicks by 41 points on Sunday and lead the Atlantic Division. (Caveat: they lead it with a record that would rank them last in the Southwest. No, really: the New Orleans Pelicans, the Southwest cellar-dwellers at 9-10, would lead the Atlantic.)
Only one of the former Celtics is guaranteed to play tonight. Garnett comes out scot-free on the team’s injury report, though his season production has taken a significant hit this year. Celtics fans who watch tonight’s game may be less weirded out by Garnett in a black-and-white jersey as they are by what he’ll do in it: He’s shooting just 36% from the field, clanking his once-trusty midrange jumper, and has lost much of the lateral mobility that made him such an effective defender in Boston. Pierce, a lifelong Celtic before the offseason trade, is questionable to play with a broken bone in his right hand that he sustained less than two weeks ago. He practiced with the team Monday and told reporters he’d try to play. Terry is likely out as he rests a bruised knee.
If Pierce plays, it’ll be the first time the Nets have had all five starters since November 15th. If they all play at least 20 minutes, it’ll be the first time that’s happened since November 9th.
The former Nets aren’t top options for the Celtics, but they’ve made a decent impact thus far. Wallace has firmly entrenched himself in Boston’s rotation with his defensive acumen and all-around Crashability, even if he’s not putting up gaudy numbers. He’s averaging just 6.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes. He’s also shooting 40% from three-point range on just over an attempt per game, in case you didn’t feel maddened enough. Humphries shares a rotation with forward Jared Sullinger, forward Brandon Bass, and surprise rookie center Vitor Faverani, and has put up solid production in his limited time. Brooks and Bogans haven’t cracked the team’s rotation.
With point guard Rajon Rondo out indefinitely following right knee surgery, the Celtics are led by a trio of wings: all-around forward Jeff Green, defensive specialist Avery Bradley, and shooter Jordan Crawford. Fun fact: the Nets originally drafted Crawford in 2010 with the 27th overall pick, then traded him with the 31st pick for Damion James. Crawford is averaging 13.9 points an 5.4 assists per game, shooting 40.2 percent from three-point range. James is currently out of the NBA.
Tonight’s game also marks the return of Nets point guard Deron Williams, the max-contract All-Star who hasn’t played in a full game since November 13th. Williams’s absence has shown just how big a weakness the point guard position is without him:
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Without Williams, the Nets score less, distribute the ball less, and shoot significantly worse from beyond the arc. That last point is a big difference: Shaun Livingston and Tyshawn Taylor aren’t threats from deep, and Williams’s playmaking opens up the floor for his teammates as well. Though it’s impossible to tell if he’s 100% — who knows anything about Williams’s condition these days? — his presence alone changes the game. He just needs to avoid more freak accidents to his ankles.
The Nets have stumbled out of the gate; through 20 games only four NBA teams rank worse. Coach Jason Kidd has often talked about seeing this team “whole,” which, to his credit, we haven’t seen much of yet. No one saw this coming. But with Williams back, they’ve taken one major step closer to completion. There’s a chance we see just a sliver of what the Nets can do at full strength. Whatever that may be.