The Brooklyn Nets came into the NBA Playoffs as the heavy favorites to advance to the Finals out of the Eastern Conference. Why? Well, for starters, their roster boasts three generational talents all playing on the same court. The combination of Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant was one of mythic proportions, and fans thought it spelled disaster for the rest of the league. With these three ballers joining forces, who could beat all three of them?
We actually have an answer to this question, but not in the way you might think.
The Boston Celtics, who are matched up with Brooklyn in the first round, weren’t coming into the playoffs with the same team they had in 2020. Far from it, in fact. With Jaylen Brown out for the season, and Jayson Tatum doing everything he can to keep the team going, the Celtics weren’t expected to take down the Nets in this series. In fact, they still aren’t. However, when the series shifted to Boston for Game 3, the Celtics did something that only two other teams were able to do in the regular season.
They beat the Nets with Durant, Harden and Irving all on the floor.
Now that might seem like an exaggeration. Only TWO teams beat the Nets when they were at full strength? So they went 70-2 all season, right? Well, when you zoom out, the Brooklyn Nets didn’t have all three of their stars in the same game for a majority of the season. In fact, the law firm of Durant, Irving and Harden only played together in 8 games, totaling over 202 minutes together in the regular season.
Eight games. 202 minutes together. That’s a small sample size. Add in the fact that the two teams to beat them, the Cavaliers and Raptors, failed to make the playoffs and finished with records below .400. That’s not great for Brooklyn.
In the 8 games they played together, the Nets Big 3 posted these numbers:
- Durant: 23.6 points per game, 4.5 assists, 7.9 rebounds.
- Harden: 18.5 points per game, 11.9 assists, 7.6 rebounds.
- Irving: 25.8 points per game, 4.0 assists, 4.6 rebounds.
- Total: 67.9 points per game, 20.4 assists, 20.1 rebounds.
And in the first two games against the Celtics, they posted these averages:
- Durant: 29 points per game, 3 assists, 10 rebounds.
- Harden: 20.5 points per game, 7.5 assists, 7 rebounds.
- Irving: 22 points per game, 3.5 assists, 6 rebounds.
- Total: 71.5 points per game, 14 assists, 23 rebounds.
And then Game 3 happened.
In the first half, James Harden and Kevin Durant carried the Nets’ offense into the locker room with 17 points each, and with the Nets trailing 61-57. Notably missing from the Nets’ first half was Kyrie Irving, who had only connected on one of his five field goals. The Celtics were doing something that few teams had the ability to do. They were forcing the Nets to play with one of their three hands tied behind their back.
The Nets would lose Game 3 by a score of 125-119, with Durant and Harden scoring a combined 80 points. Outside of their big three, the Nets were only able to score 25 points, leaving Kyrie’s rough play as the difference maker. And that’s where the Celtics found something few teams had been able to find.
When attempting to fight the three-headed dragon from Brooklyn, the head to attack is Kyrie Irving. But not in the traditional way you’d see most NBA teams do it. This isn’t a “Jordan Rules, but for Kyrie” type of thing.
In fact, the person it affects the most is James Harden.
Harden’s been the most effective player on the floor for the Nets this season, and it’s because of how absolutely dangerous he is from anywhere on the floor. With a guy who can pull up from anywhere, drive from anywhere, and dish from anywhere, you have to take all necessary precautions. Harden, known for being stingy with the ball in Houston, has flipped the script and has used his teammates in Brooklyn to help make him a dangerous playmaker. He’s his own “three seconds or less” D’Antoni offense, which has to have been Steve Nash’s plan all along.
But the only way this works is if everyone else can make their shots, and can play on that same level. If one cog in this machine breaks down, it puts unnecessary stress on the others. By removing Kyrie from the equation, the Celtics forced Durant and Harden into fewer passing options and had to take shots themselves. James Harden himself took 9 more attempts than he averaged in the first two games, and Durant matched his Game 1 total of 33 attempts. Kyrie was forced to take 23 shots and only hit on 8, with half of those coming in the fourth quarter. If you force the Nets’ hand and give Harden fewer options, then you can control their game and force them to beat themselves. That’s how the Celtics can take this series. Make the guy who hasn’t won league MVP take his shots.
Is this series still a long shot for the Celtics to win? Yes, absolutely. But if there’s a weakness in the Goliath to Brad Stevens’ David, it’s what we saw in Game 3, and if the Celtics can recreate that game plan again, things might go back to Brooklyn evened up.
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