New-look Nets open the season against Al Horford and the Celtics

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

New-look Nets open up the season against Al Horford and the Celtics

Opponent: Boston Celtics
Location: TD Garden (Boston)
Time: 7:30 EST
Watch: YES Network

Injuries: Randy Foye (hamstring) and Caris LeVert (foot) are out.

After a major offseason overhaul that saw more roster turnover than any other team in the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets are ready to show the world what their 2016-2017 motto “Brooklyn Grit” stands for. As it stands, the Nets will need grit, guts, and more luck than ever before if they want to make noise this season, particularly so after missed out two of their top free agent targets — Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe. Tonight, the Nets begin their newest journey at 7:30 EST from the TD Garden as they take on the Boston Celtics, the team that owns the right to swap draft picks with Brooklyn next June.

The Nets, even with just four players returning, enter the season with low expectations, a lack of talent and, nothing to tank for… again.

Due to the infamous trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013, the Nets have been unable to acquire high-end draft picks and have watched their awkwardly constructed roster of overpriced veterans crash and burn. Last year, the team lost 61 games and was unable to begin the rebuilding process with a top pick, watching the Celtics select Jaylen Brown with the no. three overall selection instead. In a way, this game is one fueled by revenge of the Nets’ past mistakes, as those have ultimately helped build a contender in Boston.

Obviously, Brooklyn doesn’t match up well with most teams, but Boston poses a major threat defensively — particularly so because of the motion offense that head coach Kenny Atkinson has run this preseason. Boston had one of the league’s stingiest defenses in 2015-2016 — ranked fourth in defensive efficiency — and the core of that unit is still wrecking havoc — with one minor addition. The acquisition of Al Horford only stands to further bolster Brad Stevens’ impressive defense, as he has the versatility to defend stretchy big men out to the three-point line, but is also an incredible shot blocker down low.

Jae Crowder, who is one of the best on-ball defenders in the game, anchors the unit alongside Avery Bradley and the pair have the motor and quickness to chase shooters like Jeremy Lin and Joe Harris all night. Both ranked in the top-25 in steals per game last season, so they have the ability to disrupt the Nets’ shooters, harass the ball handlers, and step into the passing lanes to create chaos and turnovers.

During the preseason, the Nets relied heavily on the three-pointer and every player on the court  — from Vasquez to Hamilton —  hoisted them up. If the Celtics’ high-flying, committed defense can work to neutralize that, Brooklyn will have then have to rely heavily on the low post talents of Brook Lopez and hope that Lin can penetrate and draw fouls. Through preseason, there was some reluctance from Atkinson to lean on the Lin-Lopez pick and roll, but, either way, Horford has the ability to switch onto any guard and prevent him from doing too much damage.

This game could come down to whether or not one of the Nets’ guards  — like Lin, Bojan Bogdanovic, or Joe Harris — can catch fire from the floor. Lopez also needs to hold his own against Horford in the post because if he’s shut out there and the Nets aren’t hitting from deep, then this could get ugly fast. If all these things break right for the Nets, perhaps Brooklyn can pull off the upset and set the tone for what could be a long season.

3 Things to Watch for in Nets-Celtics:

1. Who will guard Isaiah Thomas? 

Will it be Lin? Could we see Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on him at times? Thomas averaged 22 points per game in 2015-2016 and limiting his contributions will be key. Once Thomas starts heating up, it only helps to release other threats — Bradley, Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, etc — from deep — so be careful!

2. Do the Nets go back to leaning on Brook Lopez?

It’s been well-documented that Lopez struggled this preseason, shooting just 39% from the field and attempted his own fair share of three-pointers as well. Scoring on Horford is no easy task, but the Nets could settle into a new season through the franchise’s most reliable asset.

3. Can Atkinson match wits with Stevens?

Stevens already has a league-wide reputation as one of the craftier coaches, so this will be Atkinson’s first big challenge. The Celtics move well on both sides of the ball and Atkinson will need to be decisive, forward-thinking, and readjust on the fly in order to stick with the dark horse Eastern Conference contenders.

Bonus Roundtable: With Randy Foye out tonight, who grabs the start at shooting guard?

Jerry Kane: Bogdanovic should win this start, as he should have never lost it in the first place.

Coming off a strong Olympics performance over the summer, Bogdanovic led all players in scoring with 25.3 points per game. In 2015-2016, after the Nets waived Joe Johnson, Bogdanovic dropped 15.1 points per game post All-Star break on 40% shooting from deep. This led most fans to believe that Bogdanovic would be the starting shooting guard and likely have a breakout season this year, but Atkinson may have different plans.

As a starter, Bogdanvoic averaged 14.1 points per game compared to just 8.4 off the bench.

Ryan Carbain: I’m actually a fan of Bogdanovic coming off the bench. One of the reasons he’s excelled in international play is, quite simply, because he gets to have the ball in his hands more. Playing with the second unit allows him to be more ball dominant, work from the post, and try to take certain mismatches off the dribble. But all that said, Bogdanovic should start tonight.

The two preseason games against Boston showed us that Isaiah Thomas can’t cover Lin. Avery Bradley will have to take that assignment, which forces Brad Stevens to hide Thomas on either Bogdanovic or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

I’ll take either wing trying to bully Thomas in the post, so he’s my pick to start tonight.