The only chatter that’s come from the Celtics in the past few days is the desire to get this series started. Six days off in between the season finale and Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round against the Brooklyn Nets has the Celtics on edge and ready to play.
They’ve heard the words of Brooklyn swingman Bruce Brown for several days now. They understand the Nets plan on attacking the paint with Robert Williams out for at least the early part of this series. They understand the Nets have two of the greatest individual scorers in NBA history with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
They understand they aren’t the prohibitive favorites in this series despite being the second seed.
The Celtics must prove to the NBA audience they are truly one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference. They have perhaps the most difficult opponent of any team with home-court advantage, taking on a team with immense playoff and championship experience that brings the two most accomplished players in the series.
The players understand the difficult task. They came away from their three days of full practices feeling prepared for the challenge.
“Excited to finally be able to play (Sunday),” forward/center Al Horford said. “(The week off) has been nice but it’s been long. Sometimes you wait so long to play that it’s kind of a drag but finally it’s going to be here and we can actually play some games.”
All week Celtics players have been asked about Brown’s comments following the Nets’ play-in victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he said the Nets will attack Horford and Daniel Theis in the paint with Williams, one of the league’s premier rim protectors, missing early games after knee surgery.
Horford and Marcus Smart weren’t biting. Neither wanted to counter Brown’s bravado with bravado of their own or turn this into a more contentious series.
“I’m excited to get going (Sunday),” Horford said. “My stuff gets done on the floor and we’re looking forward to the challenge as a whole.”
Smart, perhaps the Celtics’ most boastful player, also had few words in response to Brown. The Celtics are keeping their strategies and their opinions to themselves. They are about business.
“That’s his opinion,” Smart said. “I’m sure they’ve got things over there that they would like to accomplish as a team. He said what he said. I’m a good friend with Bruce and it’s the competitive nature. I wouldn’t expect him to say anything otherwise, just like I wouldn’t expect us to say anything otherwise about our team. I understand (their strategy) but like (Durant) said, it ain’t gonna be that easy.”
The fine line that coach Ime Udoka and his team have to walk is to stick to the principles that have made them the No. 1 defensive team but also throw in new wrinkles and schemes to confuse Durant and Irving. The Celtics can’t be predictable against two savvy veterans who have seen every type of defense but they do have to rely on what they do well.
That’s the challenge of preparing for a seven-game series where adjustments are made every half or even every quarter.
“I think it’s important to continue to be who we’ve been, which is guarding at a high level; we don’t want it to be a shootout,” Udoka said. “For the most part be who we are. That’s good enough. That’s got us to where we are this year. Whether it’s been Luka (Doncic), Trae Young, or different guys throughout the season, I think us mixing up matchups and giving (Durant and Irving) different looks to try to keep them off balance.”
Udoka points to the fourth quarter of the March 6 matchup when the Celtics outscored the Nets 37-30 and held Durant to six field-goal attempts in nine minutes. It wasn’t exactly a stellar defensive effort but it was enough to hold off Brooklyn.
“We do have some defensive things that we haven’t done much this year that can obviously work against them,” Udoka said. “They are on our list of adjustments but we will rely on what we do well first before we try to get too tricky. If they can continue to score against our high-level defenders, we can do some things but we’ll rely on who we’ve been all year. That’s what got us No. 1 defensively.”
The Celtics are tired of talking and tired of practicing. They’re ready for what will be the biggest challenge in some of these players’ careers, the premiere first-round series against two future Hall of Famers with expectations for a long playoff run brimming.
It’s time to ball.
“We understand how great those guys are. We understand it’s going to take a full team effort and we understand the challenge,” Smart said. “As a competitor and a professional, you’re out there trying to do something special for your team and yourself. Moments like this you do live for. You can’t get up for these moments, you in the wrong professional. We’re (about) to go out there and play against two of the greatest basketball players in the game and to ever do it. To be on the same court and to go out there and compete and work and challenge with those guys is definitely something I’m looking forward to every single moment. It’s going to be fun.”