NBA Playoffs 2022: bungling Brooklyn Nets face series sweep against Boston Celtics
The Brooklyn Nets are a game away from a 4-0 Playoff series defeat to the Boston Celtics - a whitewash that would be richly deserved and little surprise.
The Boston Celtics have their brooms at the ready: the experiment/mega-project/abstract entity/socio-sporting-spiritual collective that is the Brooklyn Nets could be on the end of a first-round sweep come Monday. The Celtics are 3-0 up and in total charge of an NBA Playoff series that optimists felt could prove legendary - and that realists knew could very easily pan out as it has. There has been a gaping gulf between a grown-up team that respects the game, and a team that flouts every rule and takes neither itself, nor its rivals, nor the competition seriously.
Boston’s 109-103 win in Game 3 in New York ended up with shouts of M-V-P for Jayson Tatum, and with chants of Let’s Go Celtics for the visiting team. The Nets couldn’t get back into their dressing room quickly enough after time was up. They’re a team who look like they’d bite your hand off if you offered them the chance to be done with the series right now. Over the next couple of days, the debate will rage over whether or not Ben Simmons, who hasn’t played since the Philadelphia 76ers were eliminated from last season’s Playoffs, should make his Nets debut in a game that’s shaping up as the last rites of Brooklyn’s 2021/22 season. It’s a tragicomic situation that perfectly sums up their campaign. It’s been one of the biggest failures in the history of US professional sport.
Now’s not the time to talk about the Celtics, the Nets’ executioners. They’re a superlative team who we’re sure to discuss at length between now and June. A side that has steamrolled opponents in the second half of the season; a case study on how to weave together a team as you go, having started with a roster that seemed in ruins. Boston didn’t have to do all that much to win Game 3: just turn up and, with the minimum of fuss, blow over what was in front of them. We’ll have plenty more to say about the Celtics, because they’re as good a contender for the championship ring as anyone - right now, indeed, they’re possibly the chief candidate. We’ll talk about them when the time comes to talk about the really good teams, when we’ve said goodbye to those that have caved, those that opted to break all the mirrors in the room when they didn’t like their reflection. The Celtics also found themselves in a critical situation, but forced themselves to look at what they saw until their eyes bled. And now they’re a fine team, with a magnificent defence and enough talent to always compete in offence. A look at the NBA history books will tell you that this is a formula that wins championships. Or, at least, makes you deserving of the title.
Nets’ excesses have left them exactly where they deserve to be
The Nets, on the other hand, deserve nothing. There can be few more unedifying exercises than playing along with those who overindulge. Humouring those who delude themselves that they can do no wrong. Looking for excuses, seeking to justify the narratives of those who find neither the time to work, nor the inclination to hide their stratospheric collapse. It’s now been three seasons of Kevin Durant (who didn’t play in the first, of course) and Kyrie Irving. For (more or less) one year, James Harden was also there. The free agents in specialist roles and the big names in the buyout market ran towards this obvious magnet: Brooklyn was the team to join, with generational superstars as a bridge towards the ring. Then came Kyrie’s issues with the vaccine, Harden’s personal problems, the permissiveness of a franchise in the hands of its stars. The inability to realise that Steve Nash seemed to have neither the background, nor the right ecosystem, nor a real interest in being the coach of a team that Kyrie said wouldn’t have one. Or would be coached by everyone. Or would play it by ear, depending on the day. What could possibly go wrong?
Ime Udoka, who was an assistant coach at the Nets last season, is absolutely wiping the floor with Nash, who is basically watching the games in the same way you watch a train whizz by. The Celtics’ extraordinary defence is destroying any attempts at a reaction by their opponents, who are shooting from where Boston want, and are giving the ball to the players Boston choose. In offence, the Celtics are simply sweeping a non-existent defensive system aside, without a great deal of effort. Tatum amassed 36 points, five rebounds, six assists and six steals, in another exhibition of his remarkable maturity, and Jaylen Brown ended up with 23+4+5 and a series of immaculately made decisions in the few moments when the temperature did rise in Barclays Center. Ahead of the challenges to come (against real opposition), there was further good news for the Celtics in the shape of Robert Williams’ return, after almost a month out with a knee injury. Before Christmas, Boston seemed to be falling apart as a project. Now, they have every right to consider themselves the best team in the NBA. So we’ll talk more about them, and we’ll talk a lot, once they finish off the farce that is the Nets. The dynasty that never was.
Durant continues to disappoint; Kyrie nowhere to be seen
On another poor evening for Durant, the 33-year-old ended up with 16 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, six turnovers, just 11 shots (6/11), only two from the personal line and none in the final 11 minutes. In this series, he has managed 66 points in three games. Many would have thought it easier for him to reach the fourth with 66 points in one game, rather than 66 overall. The Celtics have snuffed out his energy, occupied his spaces, changed the direction of his movements on the court. The Nets have had no reply. They haven’t come up with a single serious tactical readjustment, and Durant hasn’t offered up even a shred of defiance. When your name is Kevin Durant, there are things you’re expected to do whatever happens, whoever is in front of you. You might not win the series, but you can never lose it in this manner.
After his monumental Game 1 in Boston, Kyrie has disappeared: on this occasion, he mustered 16 points from 17 shots, and 0/7 on three-pointers. Bruce Brown (26 points, eight rebounds) is shooting more than Kyrie and Durant. That’s partly because he appears to be the only member of the Nets with a passing interest in playing, but also because it’s exactly what the Celtics want to happen.
As the regular season progressed, it became clearer and clearer that this was how things were likely to go for the Nets. All of which makes things that bit worse. This isn’t just a stroke of bad luck, an unfair twist in the tale. This is the result of months and months of internal sabotage. Of complacency as the ship sank, of complicity in the troubles of a mega-project of unbridled ambition. Ambition that went up in smoke on the first day of work. Since then, nothing. And as for the future, right now only one thing is homing into view: a Celtics sweep.