NEW YORK — The Celtics became the first team to punch their ticket to the second round of the NBA playoffs, taking care of business Monday night in Brooklyn.
Their next opponent could be finalized as early as Wednesday, when the Bucks host the Bulls for Game 5 of their first-round series. If Chicago wins, the teams will play again on Friday. If Milwaukee wins, then the Celtics will face off against the defending champions in the conference semifinals.
What’s certain, though, is that the Celtics have earned some much-needed time to rest and recover following a physical series. Robert Williams, who returned to action in Game 3, will benefit as he works his way back after tearing his meniscus and having surgery in late March. As will Jaylen Brown, who said he was dealing with a hamstring issue in the second half of Game 4, and the rest of the rotation.
“It’s huge,” Jayson Tatum said. “More time for Rob, myself, everybody. This was a very taxing four games. It took everything on both ends of the floor. Getting these five, six days off is going to be very beneficial for everybody.”
Health is critical moving forward, but, at this point, the Celtics should feel confident regardless of whom they play next — and Tatum is a huge reason why. Throughout the Nets series, Tatum proved why he is no longer one of the league’s best young players, but simply one of the league’s best players.
He turned in a stellar two-way performance, averaging 29.5 points and 7.3 assists, both up from his regular-season averages. He shot 45.6 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from the three-point line, hitting shots in critical moments.
In Game 4, Tatum got off to a slow start and missed both of his field goal attempts in the first quarter. But when the Nets were pushing in the second quarter, he knocked down three consecutive baskets to help preserve the Celtics’ slight cushion.
The clutch shotmaking continued throughout the game. Each time the Nets started to inch closer, Tatum would answer.
When Kyrie Irving converted two free throws to pull Brooklyn within 6 midway through the third quarter, Tatum hit a three that was later changed to a two. Kevin Durant immediately tried to answer with a three, but his shot clanked off the back of the rim. The Celtics soon had a double-digit lead that they maintained for the remainder of the quarter.
Then, early in the fourth, after Durant hit a fadeaway jumper to bring the Nets back within 6, Tatum connected on back-to-back buckets to once again buoy the Celtics. He finished with an efficient and productive stat line — 29 points on 9-of-16 shooting — before fouling out.
But perhaps more impressive was Tatum’s ability to contain Durant defensively in the series. According to the NBA’s tracking data, Durant scored just 12 points when Tatum was his primary defender. He made 3 of his 18 field goal attempts (16.7 percent), turned over the ball 12 times, and had his shot blocked twice.
Tatum and the Celtics noticeably frustrated Durant with their physicality.
“Obviously, I have the utmost respect for KD and what he’s brought to the game and accomplished,” Tatum said. “Somebody like that, he brought the best out of me. I knew that I had to be on the top of my game in this series.
“But in the same breath, I wasn’t surprised at how I played. I do feel like I’m one of the best players. That’s how I approach the game when I step on the floor, regardless of who’s on the other team.”
With that mind-set and execution from Tatum, the Celtics should feel confident that they can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the East.
“We’ve talked to him about being ‘the guy’ every night he steps out on the court,” said coach Ime Udoka. “For him, it’s more of the same, what he’s been doing all year. It’s well-chronicled that I told him to go at certain guys and not respect anybody too much. He relishes those moments.”
If the Celtics do end up playing the Bucks, two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will be their next superstar opponent. Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 27.5 points, 14.5 rebounds, and 7.0 assists against the Bulls, poses a different challenge than Durant, but the two are similar in their ability to take over games.
Good thing for the Celtics they have a player who can do that, too.