The Brooklyn Nets are an enigma—a fascinating puzzle we’re still trying to comprehend. They remain the most interesting team in the playoffs. Largely because of what we know and what we don’t know. They have star power. They have firepower. But do they have enough battery power left to charge through the playoffs and reach the NBA Finals?
Not even Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving know. We’re all going to find out together when the seventh-seeded Nets take on the No.2-seeded Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the first round Sunday afternoon. Boston is a slight favorite to win the best-of-seven series, but no one would be shocked if the Nets quickly dispatched the Celtics for the second straight year. Brooklyn (44-38) is close to full strength and therefore might be the best No.7-seed in Eastern Conference history.
Remember way back in the fall, when Brooklyn was the preseason favorite to win it all? That was because the Nets had the Big Three of Durant, Irving, and James Harden. Of course, nothing went according to plan. An underwhelming season was beset by injuries, a shocking trade, and New York City’s vaccination mandate.
The Nets owned the second-best record in the East (27-15) before Durant (seen above in 2021) missed 21 games with a left knee injury. Once that happened, Brooklyn wasn’t the same, going 5-17 during that stretch. When you add in Irving’s status as a part-time player for most of the season due to his refusal to get vaccinated, the Nets were in trouble down the stretch. They had to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in tournament just to reach the postseason.
Operating in his comfort zone 🎯 pic.twitter.com/8iNsEclpa3— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) April 13, 2022
Chemistry was an issue too. Brooklyn made a bold move by shipping out Harden for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond right before the trade deadline. At the time, we wondered why the Nets were ready to give up on their great offensive experiment. Earlier this week, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz reported that Durant wasn’t happy with Harden’s poor conditioning. The trade put an end to the short-lived Big Three era of Durant, Harden, and Irving, who wound up playing only 16 games together (regular-season and playoffs combined).
The key player in that deal has yet to suit up. Simmons (back injury) may finally make his debut in the Boston series, possibly as soon as Game 3, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. Officially, Brooklyn coach Steve Nash has played it coy by saying “I have no idea.”
Simmons’ availability adds another layer of intrigue because the last time we saw him in an NBA game, he was mysteriously passing up wide-open shots. The 6-foot-11 point guard was the fall guy for the Philadelphia 76ers’ epic playoff implosion against the Atlanta Hawks last year. Since then, Simmons has been in cold storage.
At his best, Simmons is a peerless passer and defender. His size and vision allow him to find shooters anywhere on the floor. His height and mobility allow him to guard both on the perimeter and in the paint. He’s a unique talent. That’s why Simmons was the No.1 overall pick of the 2016 draft.
The biggest impact Simmons could make is on the defensive end, where the Nets finished 20th in defensive rating. The two-time All-Defensive First Team selection had the league’s fourth-best individual defensive rating last season with Philadelphia.
But Simmons is a flawed player who might never live down his meltdown against the Hawks. His reluctance to shoot is problematic in today’s pace-and-space NBA. It’s one thing to be bad at 3-point shots (an astounding 5 of 34 for his career). It’s quite another when you’re not even trying to score in the paint.
The Nets can’t expect Simmons to be at his best after a year off. So, this series will likely come down to Durant and Irving trying to outgun the Celtics. It’s certainly possible. Durant (29.9 points) finished with his highest scoring average since his MVP season in 2013-14 (32.0). Irving (27.4) tied his career-high in scoring and shot a career-best 41.8 from 3-point range. Against the Cavaliers, Irving had 34 points while fasting for Ramadan.
"Well, it’s a journey with God. I’m not alone in this. I have brothers and sisters all around the world that are fasting with me"— ANADOLU AGENCY (@anadoluagency) April 13, 2022
"I’m walking with faith"
Kyrie Irving, fasting during Ramadan, scores 34 pts vs. Cavs to help Nets advance to NBA playoffs https://t.co/vKsWN2GOgZ pic.twitter.com/tB91QUYOzS
Beating Boston will be a harder test. The Celtics have the NBA’s best record (17-5) since the All-Star break and the league’s best defensive rating this season. Brooklyn-vs.-Boston could wind up being a classic series. We’ll see if the NBA’s most interesting team can make a memorable run to the Finals.
[Photo from Vincent Carchietta-USA Today Sports]