Here are seven thoughts about the Celtics as they bring their 2-0 series lead over the Nets into Saturday night’s Game 3 in Brooklyn.
1. After Game 2 Wednesday, Nets guard Kyrie Irving made a complimentary yet somewhat oddly timed comment about the Celtics and their progress.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Irving said. “I just think the timing is right. Their window is now for these young guys on the team that have matured. They’ve been through series together, been through seasons together, they’ve been through battles together. And I got a chance to experience some of that.
“Now, being on the opposite end and going against a healthy Celtics team — without Robert Williams — but you’re just seeing there’s a difference in their verve, a difference in the way they approach the game. And also they have a set offense and defense that they rely on.
“[Coach Ime Udoka] has been a huge part of that. But you’ve got to give credit to that guy that’s sitting in the president’s role as well now. All of a sudden we don’t see him as often, [but] Brad Stevens has a lot to do with that.”
The sentiment was kind but the timing was unusual. These are things a player might say at the conclusion of a hard-fought series, not two games in, with your team trailing, 2-0.
Irving’s words are probably excessively parsed, and we might be guilty of it at this moment. But the comment about Stevens stood out.
Was that a shot at his predecessor, Danny Ainge? Was it a shot at the Nets for not doing more to surround him with complementary pieces? Was it just Irving saying something nice about his former coach? It could easily have been the latter, but with Irving, one never really knows.
2. Speaking of notable quotes, Celtics forward Jaylen Brown also had one following Game 2. He was asked how much trust the team had in Udoka as he calmly guided the squad back from a 17-point first-half deficit.
“Most importantly, Ime showed his poise,” Brown said. “He didn’t panic. In past years, that might’ve been the situation. But Ime didn’t panic. He just stayed with the game plan and made some minor adjustments.”
This thought is less open to interpretation than Irving’s, and it’s hard to quibble with it, considering the Celtics’ rocky and underachieving performances in recent years. But it is still interesting, especially considering that the coach of those squads is now the president of basketball operations.
3. We pointed out a few days after Robert Williams was ruled out for 4-6 weeks following surgery to repair his torn meniscus March 30 that the Celtics tended to overstate timelines. Let’s face it, “quick recovery” just sounds better than “had a setback.” So it’s no surprise to hear that Williams could return as early as Saturday, which would be 3½ weeks since his procedure.
Williams’s playing time certainly would be limited, and Udoka could even keep Daniel Theis in the starting lineup for now, as Williams is eased back. The Celtics have shown that they can advance past Brooklyn without the high-flying big man, but they’d certainly need him healthy to make a title run. It’s a perfect situation for him to knock off some rust.
4. The Nets could get a boost, too, with point guard Ben Simmons in line to potentially return in Game 4. Unlike Williams, who has missed just a few weeks and had a dominant season, Simmons has not played since last spring, when the 76ers were bounced from the playoffs in part because of his rough play.
He has battled mental health and back issues since then, and it certainly seems unlikely that he will instantly snap into playoff mode after such a long layoff. But he is a three-time All-Star.
The good news for the Nets is that it’s easier to shake off cobwebs on defense, and Simmons would instantly become their best defender. Also, he doesn’t really take jump shots anyway. But the Celtics probably would force him to make at least a few free throws.
5. Here’s hoping the referees put the whistles away in Game 3. The thrilling, buzzer-beating end to Game 1 and the Celtics’ big comeback in Game 2 masked the fact that this series has been a slog, with touch fouls constantly being called on each side.
The Celtics and Nets averaged a combined 38.9 fouls per game during the regular season, and that number has ballooned to 52.5 in this series. The first two games lasted a combined 4 hours, 59 minutes.
6. As the Celtics return to full health, it’s impossible not to notice that their route to a potential title is already clearing a bit. Bucks star Khris Middleton is expected to miss about three weeks after spraining an MCL in Game 2 against the Bulls Wednesday. Milwaukee, considered by many the favorite to advance out of the East if healthy, could struggle to finish off Chicago without its second-best player. And even if it does, Middleton would likely miss at least a couple of the games against Boston, if not the entire series.
And out West, Suns star Devin Booker is out indefinitely after straining his hamstring. The Finals are still about six weeks away, so there is plenty of time for Booker to recover, but it remains to be seen whether the 64-win Suns can get that far without him.
7. The Celtics had a busy trade deadline, parting ways with seven players and bringing back just Derrick White and Daniel Theis. That left plenty of holes to fill, and that has led to some fun — and lucrative — experiences for players who probably figured they’d just be watching the playoffs from their couches after the G League season concluded.
Two-way-contract player Sam Hauser had his contract converted into a standard NBA deal; Luke Kornet, Juwan Morgan, and Malik Fitts were all signed from the Celtics’ team’s G League affiliate in Maine; and Matt Ryan filled Hauser’s vacated two-way deal.
If you take a look at the bench during games, you can see they’re having the time of their lives.