NEW YORK — While Brad Stevens has spent the week lauding the talent of the Brooklyn Nets, calling them one of the league’s best teams and essentially saying the Celtics will have to play near perfect to give themselves a chance at a stunning upset, he is motivated by the challenge of facing such an elite team.
It’s reminiscent of Stevens’ days at Butler University, when he led underdog teams to consecutive national championship games. In 2010, the fifth-seeded Bulldogs beat top-seeded Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State. A year later, it was top-seeded Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, and Florida as a No. 8 seed.
Stevens has been in this situation before, preparing for a game that only those in his locker room feel as if he has a chance to win.
The Nets are considered an offensive machine, featuring three potential Hall of Famers. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden have played only eight games together because of injury, COVID-19 issues, and personal issues, but they are predicted to stomp the undermanned Celtics, without All-Star Jaylen Brown for this first-round series.
Yet, the Celtics have hope. They were able to use a 50-point performance from Jayson Tatum to beat the Washington Wizards in a play-in game. There isn’t much of a sample size for Stevens to determine how to attack the Nets’ Big Three since the Celtics never faced all three in the same game. (Durant and Irving starred in a Christmas Day win, Harden and Irving led Brooklyn in February, and Irving and his other teammates pushed past the Celtics in April.)
These types of matchups motivate Stevens, bringing him back to his mid-major teams filled with three-star prospects against multiple NBA hopefuls.
“I enjoy that part of it,” he said. “I think that there’s obviously a lot of things we have to do well, and we’re looking forward to that challenge. This is why you coach, why you play. I know our guys are looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to it.
“In a lot of similar situations, we’ve been thought of in an underdog role, in our days at Butler, but we never thought of ourselves that way when we are in our locker room talking to each other. Which is exactly the way we are here.”
Evan Fournier was part of Orlando teams that were able to win Game 1s over higher seed Toronto in 2019, then Milwaukee in the bubble last season. The Magic didn’t win either series, but they did play well enough to provide resistance.
The Celtics, of course, hope to fare better than that.
“There’s no secret, being a lower seed playing against a No. 1 or second seed, you just have to compete with them first,” Fournier said. “When you play the best teams in the NBA, you have to compete with them, you have to show them everything they’re going to get is hard and that it’s going to be a long series. The key for us is the way we’re going to execute our game plan.
“Obviously at some point we’re gonna have to make big plays. They have big-time players so we’re going to have to step up and play well together.”
The Nets are such a prolific scoring team that the Celtics’ first emphasis has to be defense despite missing Brown, one of their best defenders. They are not going to win shootouts, 145-140.
Jayson Tatum could see considerable time guarding Durant. Kemba Walker will be chasing Irving around screens, while Marcus Smart is expected to check Harden, who’s more of a facilitator than the scorer he was in Houston, although he’s still capable of a 30-point game.
The Celtics cannot allow Harden to pile up the points and assists. They have to limit his effectiveness.
“They have a lot of talent across the floor, so it’s going to take all five guys that’s on the court, we’re all going to have to be together,” Smart said. “We can’t get down on ourselves if we make a mistake. If they hit tough shots, we have to continue to play and move on to the next one.
“It doesn’t change the fact that he’s been more of a playmaker. He’s still the same Harden, if he gets hot, he can get in a zone and change the game himself.”
The Celtics realize that they are going to have to play better than at any point during their tumultuous regular season, and that the trio of Harden, Durant, and Irving will at times make difficult shots or score easily even against the best of defenses. The key is the Celtics responding with plays of their own.
If they stagger too long, they will get knocked out.
“There will be some ‘tip your cap’ moments where you’re going to have to say ‘nice shot,’ and go down on the other end and score,” Stevens said. “You’re not going to hold these guys to 90 [points]. This is a high-octane offense. It just means your offensive possessions have to be very purposeful.
“This is a fun challenge. They’re a heck of a team, but we have some guys in here who have been through big-time series before and have raised their level to meet the moment on several occasions.”