Even after two meetings and two Celtics losses, all the ingredients were there to make the Nets a match made in heaven for Boston. They were a slow-paced team that defended poorly and was prone to bad habits on offense. They did not have a remarkably dangerous bench or an imposing interior defender. They had all the weaknesses the Celtics could exploit and few of the strengths that trouble the guys in green.
Until Tuesday, however, the Celtics had not capitalized on this outwardly favorable matchup. It finally came together in front of a national television audience, opening a four-game holiday road trip on a promising note for Celtics fans who feared the end of days after a discouraging loss on Dec. 21. The 93-76 win will provide a measure of hope for the Celtics as they head out west, but anyone expecting a similar style of play to garner victories in Los Angeles, Oakland or Sacramento may be disappointed.
Kevin Garnett was the quiet leader of the game with 10 rebounds and flawless defensive execution against a smaller Brooklyn lineup. Jared Sullinger tallied 16 points and seven rebounds in a strong all-around effort. Rajon Rondo bounced back from a six-point performance on Friday against the Bucks and dropped 19 points, while Paul Pierce sat back and dealt 10 assists.
Yet all these things, in their own ways, revealed as much about the Nets as they did about the Celtics.
As difficult as it is to demand constant perfection, Garnett delivered the defensive performance he was capable of against Brooklyn all along. Kris Humphries, who missed Tuesday’s game with a strained abdominal muscle, and Reggie Evans are non-factors offensively, and no matter how greatly the statistics and Nets people insist Brook Lopez has improved, he is still a one-dimensional post player who commits an uncalled traveling violation every time he makes a post move. Andray Blatche, who was banished from an awful team and even worse situation in Washington last season, has been one of Brooklyn’s most dynamic frontline threats. That is saying something.
In addition, the Celtics’ 41-36 rebounding margin was another step toward playing at least even with their opponents on the glass, which Boston has done fairly effectively over the past two weeks. But while only the Dallas Mavericks are quite as bad as the Celtics rebounding-wise, the Nets do not exactly impersonate a platoon of Dennis Rodmans. Brooklyn is 19th in the NBA in rebounding and gives up 40.3 rebounds per game. So, although the Celtics deserve credit for holding the Nets more than five boards below their 41.6 per-game average, the Celtics essentially posted an average night on the glass for a Brooklyn opponent. That is a small triumph, but a triumph nonetheless.
Then there was Rondo, who was undeniably excellent in certain stretches when the Celtics needed it most. He found Sullinger for a contested layup and drained a pull-up 3-pointer to end the third quarter and stave off a Nets rally, and his recent evolution into a more aggressive scorer has created a more active offense for the Celtics overall. He was often covered by Deron Williams, however, a once-decent defender who has turned into a turnstile since he was traded to New Jersey in 2011.
When it comes to poor defense, Williams is not Brooklyn’s only offender, either. The Nets give up the 13th-most points per 100 possessions with a defensive rating of 102.9. That is almost a full point worse than the league average of 102.0 and nearly as bad as the sieve-like Mavericks. Their 93.9 points-against average, the sixth-lowest mark in the league, is a total mirage; they give up a low amount of points because they play so slowly that the other team barely has any possessions in which to score points. But on those few possessions, their opponents do not have much trouble scoring.
This is not to belittle Boston’s win, as any victory is welcome for the Celtics as they try to build an identity heading into a new year. The point is, the Clippers, Warriors and Kings do not present the same set of clearly advantageous factors for the Celtics — all right, the Kings do, because the Kings suck — so expecting the same recipe to yield another win or three on this trip would be unrealistic.
The Celtics’ test, therefore, comes in what they do next against the Clippers. If they can find a way to adjust to a new set of strengths and weaknesses against the Clippers (whose strengths admittedly outnumber the weaknesses ten-fold at the moment), then the Celtics truly will have turned a corner.