NEW YORK — The Celtics seem to have an admirer in Kevin Durant.
“They’re an incredible team,” Durant said Monday night after Boston’s 116-112, series-clinching victory. “They have a chance to do some big things the rest of the playoffs. They played amazing.”
Durant and the Nets are headed to the offseason, while the Celtics are off to the second round, set to face either the Milwaukee Bucks or Chicago Bulls. Milwaukee leads that first-round series, 3-1, with Game 5 scheduled for Wednesday night.
What was initially billed as a highly-competitive series to potentially go the distance, Celtics-Nets ended up being the lone sweep of the first round. Durant acknowledged that a number of internal factors played a role in the outcome, but he wanted to stress the Celtics were the superior squad, regardless of the state of the Nets.
“They were just the better team,” he said. “They played that way.”
So, what makes him say that?
For starters, the Celtics have the NBA’s best defense. Boston recorded a league-best 106.2 defensive rating during the regular season.
But Durant noted the Nets still shot above 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from the three throughout the series, even though his individual numbers were below his usual average.
Shot-making wasn’t necessarily the problem; instead, Durant focused on the impact of Boston’s size.
“Standing in front of their guys, they had bigger guys,” he said. “You look up and Seth Curry or [Goran] Dragic is boxing out a 7-footer — they’re playing hard, but they’re just smaller.”
Nets coach Steve Nash made a similar observation.
“It was a big battle having three or four 6-foot-2 guys out there on the court in the playoffs,” Nash said. “That’s a challenge. I feel for them. We asked them to battle. You could see they were trying to hide some facial expressions when you tell a 6-foot-2 guy that they’re guarding the center. But our options were limited.”
Boston’s size and toughness also proved beneficial on the offensive glass, something that both Durant and Nash pointed to as a difference maker. In Game 4, the Celtics grabbed 10 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points. Over the course of the series, they logged 44 offensive boards, compared to Brooklyn’s 34.
The fact that the Celtics can switch defensively and boast shooting at basically every position makes them even tougher, both Durant and Nash said.
The Nets’ performance has plenty of mitigating factors: sharpshooter Joe Harris was ruled out for the season at the beginning of March, point guard Kyrie Irving couldn’t play home games until the end of the March because of his vaccination status, and James Harden was traded for Ben Simmons, who never suited up for the Nets this season.
Because of those circumstances, Nash said it would be “unfair” and “harsh” to say the Nets underperformed this year. And although Brooklyn’s season ended with a first-round sweep, the point differential of the series remained relatively close at 18 over four games.
Still, Durant and Nash didn’t downplay the gap between the two teams as they currently stand.
“I think that our guys wore down and were tired,” Nash said. “In some ways, the series was a lot closer. In some ways, you can argue the opposite. At the end of the day, I think they were just more physical and bigger and stronger at every position.”
For the Nets, Monday’s result kicks off an important offseason, one that they hope re-establishes their dashed championship aspirations.
“The league has grown fast,” Durant said. “There are so many great players. We got to be right there with the pack, if we’re going to be a contending team. We got a lot of work to do.”
For the Celtics, though, Durant said it himself: Monday’s result could be the launching pad for a long postseason run.