BOSTON (AP) — For most of the season, the spotlight was on everyone except the Celtics in the Eastern Conference.
That was until Boston and new coach Ime Udoka put things together down the stretch with a brand built on defense, buoyed by All-Star Jayson Tatum’s nightly scoring punch.
It was the blend needed to ignite a post-All-Star break surge that took the Celtics from 11th place in the conference to the No. 2 seed. With it came a change in perception that suddenly has them garnering attention as a championship contender.
But after having their foundation shaken by a knee injury to big man Robert Williams III, the Celtics’ reward is a first-round matchup with a seventh-seeded Brooklyn Nets team that also suddenly looks capable of realizing its potential. Its James Harden failed experiment is over, and Kyrie Irving’s a full-time player again, sharing the scoring load with Kevin Durant.
It’s a challenge the Celtics are ready for.
“Everybody knows the talent that they have and that it’s not a traditional seventh-seed team,” Tatum said. “They had some ups and down this year but for the most part got their full team and they’re really good. Well-coached. Some great players. I’m just looking forward to it.”
While Tatum has taken his scoring to elite levels, notching 40 or more points five times during the regular season, including a season-high 54-point performance in their most recent matchup with Brooklyn last month, Durant and Irving have sparkled, too.
In the 17 games they’ve played together this season, Brooklyn is 11-6. In those games Irving is averaging 27.8 points and 5.8 assists, with Durant averaging 29.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists.
Still, Udoka dismissed the idea that the Celtics should be considered an underdog in the series.
“We know who we are and who we’ve been over the past few months,” he said. “The focus toward the end of the season was worrying about health and ourselves more than the opponent. And that’s how we approached it.”
The Celtics’ defensive (111.1) and offensive ratings (124.0) were the best in the NBA after the All-Star break. They are just 11-10 without Williams, but trying to avoid Brooklyn was never a consideration.
“We weren’t running from anybody, we were worrying about ourselves the whole time,” Udoka said. “In order to win you have to win against really good teams at some point.”
The seeds were reversed when these teams matched up in the first round of the playoffs last season. Led by Durant, Irving and Harden, the Nets took the series 4-1, overpowering a Celtics team that didn’t have Jaylen Brown after a late-season hand injury.
Irving has a lot of respect for what the the Celtics have built since he departed Boston after an at-times tumultuous two seasons.
“I think this is the best part of the story that could be written. We go against Boston and have a chance to redeem ourselves,” Irving said. “They have a healthy team. We have a healthy team. Now we get to see who’s the better squad. It’s exciting because we know each other really well.”
BRING IT ON
Brooklyn’s Bruce Brown made headlines when he told reporters he thinks the Nets can attack Al Horford and Daniel Theis at the rim, noting that the Celtics have “less of a paint presence” without Williams.
Udoka said he thinks they can fill in the gaps just fine.
“We have layers to our defense, it’s not like we get blown by and Rob is protecting,” he said. “We still have Marcus (Smart), Jaylen, Jayson and everybody else in between. We know how (Durant) he scores and how he attacks in a lot of drop situations. … They think it’s attack time because Rob’s out. We’ve played in quite a few games without him now and have done good enough beating some good teams.”
The Celtics aren’t anticipating Williams being ready to return before the second round, should they advance. He’s been doing some light shooting and drills but isn’t close to playing at full speed.
Point guard Ben Simmons’ status is more ambiguous. He’s also doing some on-the-court work but has been dealing with back issues since he was dealt from Philadelphia.
Irving said no one is putting expectations on Simmons to rush back.
“If he feels like he can go out there and contribute, then great,” Irving said. “We just don’t know. I just want him to take one day at a time — get his mental, his heart right, his spirit right, and we’ll be fine.”
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.
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