The first round of the 2021 postseason was the first test for the Nets big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving in their quest to win a championship. Having only played eight games together in the regular season, there still were some wrinkles to iron out for this group. Brooklyn got a quality test in the opening round against the 36-36 Boston Celtics.
Boston was tough early on in the series, but never seriously threatened as the Nets took the first two games by double digits. Celtics All-Star Jayson Tatum exploded in Game Three with 50 points, taking the Nets apart with isolations off of switches.
Tatum had 40 points in the next game, but it wasn’t enough as Brooklyn’s trio combined for an NBA record-tying 104 points in a 141-126 win. The game also created even more headlines with a Celtics fan throwing a water bottle in Irving’s direction after the Nets’ game four win.
By the fifth game of the series, Brooklyn had taken full control. Harden had a triple-double with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists as the Nets pulled away late in a 123-109 victory. After the series’ end, here’s what we’ve learned about the championship contenders.
The Big Three is Hard to Contain
We knew this already, but seeing Harden, Durant and Irving go off has been startling. Throughout the five-game series, Brooklyn’s big three combined for 85.2 points per game. The Nets have been the best offense (128 points per 100 possessions) by a wide margin through the first round of the playoffs with a plus 4.3 points per 100 possessions over the second-ranked Utah Jazz.
What’s even more interesting is how Brooklyn is getting the job done. They’ve achieved that through some good passing, but they’ve also relied heavily on isolations. Second in isolation plays during the regular season, the Nets have relied heavily on isolations as a vehicle to score. Per NBA Stats, 25.5 percent of Brooklyn’s possessions end up in isolation.
They are isolating more than any other team throughout the playoffs, but they’re making those shots. Brooklyn scores 1.18 points per possession, the highest of any team that produces at least double digits in isolation percentage.
Defense Has Held Up
The Nets weren’t great on defense, but they held their own against a Boston Celtics roster clearly lacking some of their offensive options. Boston was decimated by injuries throughout the series. Already down Jaylen Brown coming into the series, the Celtics also lost point guard Kemba Walker and big man Robert Williams to injury in the middle of the series. The Celtics were forced to rely on unproven players like Romeo Langford, Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith.
Tatum went off for parts of the series, scoring 50 points in Boston’s lone win in Game Three and 40 points in the fourth contest. Besides those two games and a 32-point game in the series finale, Brooklyn was able to hold Tatum relatively in check.
Boston was also ranked third in offensive rebounding rate during the regular season. It was a strength for the Celtics and a weakness for the Nets heading into the series, but Brooklyn actually outrebounded Boston by one at the end of the series. With only Tatum as a really dangerous scoring threat, Brooklyn’s switch-everything defensive strategy generally worked. Brooklyn’s never going to be an elite defense with its lack of size and rebounding, but if they can work their way to respectable it will give them a much better chance towards a championship.
Supporting Cast Questions
Brooklyn only had four players average double figures during the five-game series. Three of them were their superstars and the other was Joe Harris. Since the Nets always have one of Harden, Durant or Irving on the floor, it shouldn’t be a major concern. If Brooklyn’s trio can continue to put up over 80 points a game, they probably won’t need too much help in the scoring department, but it will be an interesting balance to see play out as the playoffs progress.
Brooklyn wasn’t left unscathed with injuries, as key reserve Jeff Green sat out Games Three through Five with a strained plantar fascia in his left foot. He’s expected to be reevaluated later this week.
Though the Nets withstood Green’s injury in the first round, if he’s unable to return in the second round, it could play a significant factor down the road in Brooklyn’s playoff run. Green was a primary defender on Tatum and did a good job on Boston’s young star.
Though the Nets will face tougher competition in the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, Brooklyn showed signs of stringing together solid stretches of defense. If they’re knocking down shots like this, that’s all they will need on that end.