Last September, the Celtics entered the 2020 NBA Eastern Conference Finals favored to top the Miami Heat and advance to the NBA Finals.
Now, eight months later, the majority of the basketball world expects Boston to get swept out of the first round of the playoffs. Oh, what a fall from grace it’s been for Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens and one of the most disappointing rosters in Celtics history.
The seventh-seeded Celtics on Saturday will visit the second-seeded Nets for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. Brooklyn has Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant, among others, while Boston has Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, a few decent supporting-cast players and no Jaylen Brown. Robert Williams might play, but he barely can stay on the court, anyway.
It could get ugly for a team that went .500 in the regular season and had to participate in the play-in tournament.
We’ll be honest: It’s hard to get excited for this series. Outside the possibility of one of the games being played in front of a sold-out TD Garden, there really isn’t much to look forward to. Nevertheless, this is a Celtics playoff series, and there is stuff to talk about.
So, let’s preview the inevitable slaughter:
— Can the Celtics win a game?
Seriously, that’s where we’re at. If Boston were at full strength, we’d probably give them more of a shot at winning, you know, a couple games. Maybe. But, as currently constituted, it’s hard to imagine the Celtics scoring more points than the Nets over four quarters.
— Kyrie Irving’s return
This storyline bores us, but whatever. Due to injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic, Irving has yet to face a TD Garden crowd since leaving Boston to sign with the Nets in 2019. The Garden is allowed to resume 100 capacity May 29, and Game 4 is scheduled for May 30 in Boston. So, 19,000-plus Celtics fans might finally get their chance to yell at Irving while the Celtics get pounded. Hooray!
— How will the Nets look?
Harden, Durant and Irving barely played together this season due to injuries — but the glimpses were awfully impressive. We know what Durant will do, but Irving and Harden are wild cards. Irving honestly could walk off the court in the middle of the second quarter and disappear for three years, while Harden could dog it, play losing basketball and get hurt. If Brooklyn puts it all together, it should win the title. We’ll see.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
— For the Celtics, it depends on who you’re talking about. Brad Stevens’s job reportedly is safe, but what if the Celtics get absolutely pummeled and the team quits? Are “parting ways” headlines still in the cards? The same conversation could be had about Danny Ainge, too, as he built this team. As for the players, there really isn’t much at stake. Nobody expects Tatum to carry this roster to a stunning upset, and Walker is who he is at this point: a capable but undersized guard who gets exposed in the playoffs.
— For the Nets: everything. If Brooklyn loses this series, heads will roll in New York. Honestly, they might roll if this serious goes six games. The Nets need to take care of business.
— Robert Williams
Williams dealt with turf toe and a sore knee down the stretch and then twisted his ankle in the play-in game. The athletic big man has been one of Boston’s most efficient and effective players when on the court this season, and could be a huge difference-maker in any playoff series. If Williams somehow can handle a normal workload against Brooklyn, the Celtics might win one of the games.
— Evan Fournier
The trade deadline acquisition enjoyed highs and endured lows in the second half of the season. Most notably, Fournier’s bout with COVID-19 significantly hindered his ability to be all the Celtics wanted him to be. But he can score and is a capable defender. If the Celtics are going to make any noise, they need Fournier to average nearly 25 points per game.
— James Harden
If Harden is healthy and plays the way he’s capable of, the Celtics have zero shot of doing anything against the Nets. Honestly, the rest of the NBA’s hopes might be gone if Harden shows up.
PLAYERS WITH MOST TO PROVE
— Kemba Walker
We already established that Walker doesn’t have much to lose, but we also believe he has something to gain. As much as Ainge and Celtics fans seemingly would like to see Walker moved, the reality is that Boston will have a difficult time moving his contract and iffy knee. So, Walker probably will be in Boston next season. A big series against the Nets would go a long way toward helping the veteran guard regaining the confidence of Green Teamers, including Ainge.
— James Harden
Fair or not, Harden has developed a reputation for being a me-first player who doesn’t have championship DNA. We’re not sure winning a championship with arguably the most talented team in NBA history would change our own viewpoint of Harden, but it might prompt a narrative shift in the basketball world.
Nets in five.
We think the Celtics steal a game against the Nets, who sleepwalk through one of the matchups in Brooklyn. Other than, Boston will be disposed of with relative ease.