NEW YORK It was Kevin Durant himself who asked the first question at his post-match press conference on Tuesday: “Yo, what did Bruce Brown say when he came up here?”
Forty-five minutes after the Brooklyn Nets earned seed No. 7 with a 115-108 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in opener, Durant said his teammate had “said something I did not like. Someone just told me.”
The quote that annoyed Durant came in response to a harmless question: What is the key to slowing down the Boston Celtics in the first round?
“I mean, we can not let go [Jayson] Tatum gets 50, we have to be physical with him, “Brown said. Then came the part that Durant would rather have been unsaid:” Now they do not have Robert Williams [III]so they have less presence in the paint and we can attack Al Horford and [Daniel] Theis. So it’s huge that they do not have Robert Williams. “
“Okay, man,” Durant said. “It’s probably caffeine that speaks. He takes some before the match. The two guys can do the same. It’s not going to be that easy, I have to tell you.”
When a journalist asked Durant about their upcoming opponents, he kept it simple: Brooklyn needs to stay disciplined, play together and play with passion. Instead of talking about strategies that the Nets could use against Tatum, he said they should just play hard and “see what happens.”
Durant did not appear to be furious at Brown. The mood was come on man.
“We respect our opponents,” Durant said. “No need to talk about, you know what to do with them. I just do not like that, you know? But that’s Bruce. You know, he comes in and says it. He stays with the same energy through all season, then.
“But there’s no need to say shit like that. Let’s just go out there and jump.”
It’s unclear whether Durant and Brown disagree on the Nets’ chances in their first-round series or simply on what they should and should not say to the media. It is fitting, however, that Brooklyn expressed both confidence and caution after a game – and a regular season – that gave plenty of reasons for both.
The Nets led 40-20 at the end of the first quarter and then scored eight points in the next 10 and a half minutes. They were up by as many as 22 in the third quarter, only to allow Cleveland to get within six in the fourth.
For Brooklyn, it’s great that centers Nicolas Claxton and Andre Drummond combined for 29 points and 17 rebounds on 13-to-17 shooting, but it’s not ideal for guards Seth Curry, Patty Mills and Goran Dragic to combine for nine points and an assist on 3rd -for-12 shooting. The balance it took to finish the Cavs would have been more impressive if the Nets had not wasted a great lead against the same team in the same arena four days earlier. At least this time they did not fall behind.
Cleveland was a defensive elite team for much of the regular season, but its success was based on All-Star Jarrett Allen and Rookie of the Year hopeful Evan Mobley locking the paint. The version of the Cavs that Brooklyn beat at the Barclays Center was nowhere near as suffocating, and the Celtics are about as suffocating as it gets. Boston is also far superior offensively. If the Nets needed 42 minutes each from Durant and Kyrie Irving to survive on Tuesday, then what does it take to compete with the Celtics on Sunday?
Durant is right: It will not be easy. Brown is also right: It would be much harder if Boston started the series with a healthy Williams. Your mileage may vary depending on how vulnerable Horford and Theis are defensively, but neither of them can cover the ground, block shots or catch lobs in the same way Williams does. For months, the Celtics’ defense looked almost flawless with Williams on the floor; now there are at least a few pressure points for Brooklyn to stick in.
Cleveland played what Net’s coach Steve Nash described as an “extreme” defensive style. It remained attached to Curry and Mills, was completely sold out against Brown, Claxton, Drummond and Kessler Edwards and sent extra defenders to Durant and Irving.
“At times, we did great and punished them,” Nash said, pointing to Brown’s 18-points, nine-rebounds, eight-assisted performances and the majors ’efficiency. “Moved the ball, played well stuck in our principles for a long time to get us the 20-point lead.” Nash then admitted that they “did not play our best basketball after that.”
Brown noted that he “flirted with a triple-double” again – last Friday he had 18 points, eight assists and 10 rebounds against the Cavs – and laughed. “I’m just making the right game, that’s all,” he said. The game is simple for him when the defense leaves him open, packs the paint and allows him to catch the ball with an advantage. Brown chalked up Cleveland’s comeback to Brooklyn’s “careless passes” and said he “was not so worried about it.”
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Irving made his first 12 shots and finished with 34 points on 12-for-15 shots plus 12 assists. Durant had 25 points on 9-for-16 shots and 11 assists. Many of these were tough-looking, some over multiple defenders, and the Nets would prefer not to rely on their superstars saving them. Their ability to do so, however, is why Brooklyn should still inspire a healthy amount of fear. Although Boston’s shifts shut down most of the Nets’ beautiful stuff, it will have to deal with Durant and Irving in isolation. When they strike controversial shots over fully extended arms, there is not much anyone can do.
On the one hand, Brooklyn won its last four regular season games, took care of the business in the play-in and might be able to get Ben Simmons back at some point in the first round. On the other hand, Simmons has not played all season, Curry is playing on an injured ankle, and with the post-season over us, Nash is still talking about building cohesion and learning to play together.
Boston, meanwhile, knows exactly what its identity is and what the Nets are trying to do. Its coach, Ime Udoka, was on Nash’s staff last season.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for us,” Nash said. “For a new group to go and play a team like that, it’s great at both ends, it’s going to be something that hopefully brings out the best in us.”
And the Celtics do not have Williams. It’s huge.