Lock and Key
Down by 17, backs against the wall, against two of the biggest stars this league has to offer, and none of it was too big for this Celtics team. Seven different players scored in double figures for Boston in Game 2 as the Celtics yet again demonstrated their tenacity and physicality as Boston went from playing some of its worst basketball of the season to some of its best when it mattered most in the fourth quarter. No stage seems to be too big anymore for Udoka and his determined squad that has way too many weapons at their disposal compared to the Nets. Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard combined for 27 points off the bench as Boston puts all the pressure on Brooklyn heading to the Barclays Center for another battle on Saturday night. Both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant shot under 32% from the field as Boston used its elite defense to smother the Nets' stars behind its fans who helped guide their beloved team to a 2-0 series advantage.
After the game, Irving spoke after Boston's success under Udoka, stating, "I'm not surprised at all...I just think the timing is right. Their window is now for these young guys that are on this team that have matured. They've been through series together, they've been through seasons together, they've been through battles together...There's a difference in the way they approach the game and also they have a set offense and defense that they rely on, and Ime's 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. We don't get to see him as often, but Brad Stevens definitely has a lot to do with it."
What makes this Boston team so special is its ability to find contributions from almost every player that gets into the game. Tatum struggled at the start of the contest, but he found other ways to affect the ball game through his passing. The Celtics were playing some of its most uncharacteristic basketball of the season during the majority of the first half. Brooklyn was being the most physical team as Boston just struggled to find its groove on the offensive end of the floor. The Celtics were getting beat out in transition and let the Nets knock down open shots from shooters that Boston just simply cannot leave alone. The entire narrative shifted at the end of the second quarter.
In the last two games, the Celtics have found a way to battle through the adversity of some dismal play and refocus and get back to what Boston has been doing for months now. Boston did not shy away from the unknown of being down big in a game against a top-heavy Nets team, it rode the belief that its quality and mental toughness would take over. Seeing the Celtics go down, and come back in the manner in which they did was eye-opening and exactly what Udoka and his coaching staff want to see if this team is destined for a deep run in this postseason.
In the first two games at the Garden, arguably the greatest player on the planet, Kevin Durant has shot 13-41 from the field. It isn't all about Durant missing shots that in reality he normally makes, the Celtics are doing something that Durant has not seen throughout his career, physicality. The former Golden State star made 18 out of his 20 free throw attempts, and never converted a single point in the paint against the sturdy Boston defense. Brooklyn's depth on the bench does not allow one of its superstars to have an off day. Irving netted just 10 points on 4-13 shooting from the field. It was just the second time all season that Irving netted 10 points or less in a single contest, and the third-lowest scoring total in a single playoff game in his career. Irving has put together this poor of a scoring output since late April of 2019 when he was playing for the Celtics.
Boston's ball movement was yet again on display with Tatum and Brown combined for 16 assists in Game 2. Tatum has more assists in the first two games than Durant and Irving have combined. The 24-year-old has 18 assists compared to the 15 that the perennial All-Stars of the Brooklyn Nets were able to put together. These numbers pretty much sum up the success of the Boston Celtics this season, and why the Nets are moving in the wrong direction. Brooklyn is an extremely heavy isolation team while the Celtics thrive their best with selflessness and the creativity of their two superstar wings.
Tatum does not have to have the game of his life like last season for Boston to come out on top in the end. The St. Louis native is always a threat with and without the ball in his hands. The character arc of these two squads flipped in just a matter of 12 months. Tatum needed to be great for the Celtics to just grab one game against the Nets, and now Durant and Irving both have to be something special for Brooklyn to grind out even a single result in this series.
All of the momentum is in Boston's favor heading into a decisive Game 3 where the Nets have no choice, but to win on their home floor. Only five teams in United States professional team sports have come back from a 3-0 series deficit, but no NBA team was able to accomplish the feat. Another extra day of rest for the slim Nets is going to help, but after that, the question is if playing 40 minutes or more in four straight games is going to hurt the elites on the Brooklyn roster.
The Celtics' ball-hawking defense continues to frustrate the Nets who simply have not been able to handle the depth and ruthlessness of Udoka's Boston Celtics. While the first-year head coach may not be a finalist for Coach of the Year, he is making a name for himself not only in Boston but the entire NBA. The possibility of Ben Simmons coming back for the Nets in Game 4 of the series looks like a lost cause with Simmons not having played a competitive contest in an NBA uniform for nearly 10 months. If Brooklyn wants to get itself back into this series, it has to be able to play a full 48 minutes of physical basketball. After the buzzer sounded at the Garden on Wednesday night, the world has no choice but to concede that this Celtics team is ready after years of being essentially a fringe contender.