Celtics vs.  Nets: Jayson Tatum, all-world defense have separated Boston as the team to beat in the East

Celtics vs. Nets: Jayson Tatum, all-world defense have separated Boston as the team to beat in the East

The Boston Celtics all but ended the Brooklyn Nets’ season on Saturday with a 109-103 victory in Game 3 of their first-round series. No team in NBA history has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win a series, and that’s the predicament in which the Nets now find themselves. This one is over, and to this point, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more impressive first-round performance.

The Nets are a flawed team, no doubt. But this is still about as tough a first-round matchup as a 2-seed is ever going to see. We’re talking about a fully healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and they can’t get an inch of space against this Celtics defense.

Durant could only muster 11 shots on Saturday and is shooting 36 percent in the series with 17 turnovers. In isolation, Jayson Tatum is suffocating his space, and if Durant tries to put the ball on the floor there’s a second defender, if not two of them, collapsing on him to deflect passes or force him to stop in his tracks, pivot all over , and look for a bailout. Frankly, it’s all Durant can even do to receive a clean pass at the start of the possession in the first place.

The Nets are done now, but perhaps Steve Nash would’ve been smart to let Durant bring the ball up the court, or at least come for an early DHO, and initiate pick-and-roll when it was clear he couldn’t get going in isolation Game 3; at least that would eliminate the fight to receive the pass and he would get some downhill momentum to get into his jumper instead of just catching on the wing or at the elbow with Tatum/Brown draped all over him, at which point he’s having to attack from a standstill position with secondary defenders just waiting to pounce.

But listen, it’s not that simple. There are no easy answers against this Boston defense. Durant has brought the ball up in this series and he’s been harassed to death as soon as he crosses half court. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s more Durant not wanting to dribble against this pressure than he is Nash not wanting to have him initiate. Rest assured, whatever the Nets do, Boston is going to adjust. Either way, it would not be an exaggeration to say this is as bottled up as Durant has ever been in a playoff series.

Irving, meanwhile, was 0-for-7 from 3 on Saturday and is 10-for-30 overall over the past two games of this series. The Celtics have decided not to let Durant beat them, but it’s not as if everyone else, Irving or otherwise, is getting wide-open looks because of that attention.

Boston’s defense hits the trifecta: It’s read with elite individual defenders in Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart who can, one on one, legitimately frustrate perhaps the best isolation scorer in history, it has the versatility and length to switch any and all actions, and it has the discipline and desire to rotate all over the place to cover the shooters that should theoretically be left open as a result of all the double teams.

The Celtics are everywhere.

This Boston defense has been one of the league’s main talking points for a long time now, and yet it’s still better than advertised. On top of that, Tatum is taking another leap. You can talk about the attention Durant is receiving, but it’s not as if Tatum is being ignored yet he put up 39 points on Saturday and is averaging 29.6 for the series.

The Nets have forced Tatum to be a volume scorer (he needed 29 shots on Saturday), but the point is he’s able to get those shots on his terms. It’s what we’ve come to expect from Durant, who isn’t supposed to be a guy who can be forced into being a passer over the course of an entire game, let alone most of a series.

Bottom line: Tatum and Brown outscored Durant and Irving 62-32 on Saturday. Of course, Boston’s defense is a different animal than the Brooklyn defense that Tatum and Brown are facing; it’s not apples to apples here.

But that’s the point: The Celtics, both individually and collectively, are a two-way problem, and that’s why I think we have to start calling them the favorite to come out of the East. I know the Bucks, Heat and Sixers are going to have something to say about that, but this Boston team is something else right now. With Robert Williams back, they are equipped to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo to whatever degree that is possible in a likely second-round matchup, and Khris Middleton very well might not play in that series.

There just isn’t a weakness to be found on the Celtics right now. Dispatching of the Nets is now a formality, and Boston is clearly headed for bigger and brighter stages as these playoffs roll on.

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