The obvious hook for the first-round Eastern Conference playoff matchup between the No. 2 Nets (48-24) and No. 7 Celtics (36-36) goes back to the fateful 2013 trade in which the Nets acquired Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry for several players and a slew of first-round draft picks. Two of those picks turned into current Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (the latter injured and out for the season), and one that was packaged in a trade to acquire Kyrie Irving in 2017.
Irving left that team after two seasons and signed with the Nets as a free agent. He’ll be making his first appearance back in Boston in front of fans since he left, and he will be accompanied by Kevin Durant and James Harden, the other two members of the Big 3 acquired in the course of a brilliant rebuild by Nets general manager Sean Marks.
Considering the lopsided nature of that 2013 trade, there is considerable irony that it’s the Nets who enter this matchup starting Saturday night at Barclays Center as the consensus favorite to win the NBA title. The matchups:
James Harden vs. Marcus Smart — Shortly after arriving in a trade, Harden emerged as the Nets’ true point guard, orchestrating the offense with 10.9 assists per game but still scoring at a 24.6 clip. Smart, the Celtics’ best defender, undoubtedly will be assigned to disrupt Harden’s playmaking.
Kyrie Irving vs. Kemba Walker — When Irving joined the Nets in 2019 and the Celtics replaced him with Walker, reports indicated there was a celebration in Boston’s locker room. Irving maintains he remains friendly with his former teammates, but he’s made it clear he’s happier with the Nets. That sentiment was reflected in a brilliant season in which he shot over 50% from the field, 40% from three-point range, and 90% from the foul line, a rare feat.
Joe Harris vs. Evan Fournier — For the second time in his career, Harris led the NBA with 47.5% three-point shooting. His matchup with Fournier, who was acquired from the Magic, is key. Several Nets identified Fournier, who averaged 13.0 points, as a dangerous secondary scorer.
Kevin Durant vs. Jayson Tatum — This is the marquee matchup, pitting the 32-year-old, nine-time all-NBA Durant (26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists) against the 23-year-old, one-time all-NBA Tatum (26.4, 4.0, 4.9), who scored 50 in the Celtics’ play-in win. Two excellent defenders will force each other to play both ends.
Blake Griffin vs. Tristan Thompson — Griffin is a six-time all-NBA star who joined the Nets to play a complementary role. He has become a surprising defensive leader and must keep Thompson (8.1 rebounds) off the offensive glass to limit second-chance points by the Celtics.
The Nets have the NBA’s deepest bench. Backup center Nic Claxton will play a critical defensive role and see time against Tatum. Bruce Brown and Jeff Green are key defenders and Green and Landry Shamet excel from three-point range. The Celtics have a solid bench led by Robert Williams III and Grant Williams in the frontcourt, and Payton Pritchard and Jabari Parker and on the perimeter.
Coach Brad Stevens is one of the brightest NBA tacticians, but a slew of injuries helped cause the Celtics’ slip to the seventh seed and there have been rumblings about losing the locker room. First-year Nets coach Steve Nash navigated an injury-plagued season with aplomb. He had 37 different lineups yet still won his players’ praise for poise and planning.
The Nets are as healthy as they have been all season with the Big 3 ready to play together for only the ninth time this season in Game 1, plus a healthy Harris, who sat out the final three games with a sore hip. The Celtics are without Jaylen Brown, who underwent wrist surgery, and Robert Williams III (foot) is day-to-day.
Boston fans — Even though Irving wasn’t there when the Nets first visited two years ago after he left, Irving was booed in absentia. He says it won’t bother him in person, and he routinely has torched the Celtics.
Nets fans — The Nets expect to allow a minimum of 10,000 per game and it will be the first chance for many to cheer the Big 3 in person.
Continuity — The Big 3 have eight games and 208 total minutes together. Chemistry takes time, and they could be vulnerable.
Celtics coach Stevens recently said of the Nets: "Those guys are the best of the best . . . If I’m just a general fan of the NBA, I have a hard time seeing them lose."
NETS IN 5.