NBA: Nets will take top billing into series vs. Celtics

Field Level Media, Reuters

Posted at May 22 2021 11:22 AM

NBA: Nets will take top billing into series vs. Celtics 1
Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving (11) dribbles the ball while defended by Boston Celtics power forward Semi Ojeleye (37) during the first quarter at Barclays Center. Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

The star trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving will play together for just the ninth time when the Brooklyn Nets open the Eastern Conference first-round, best-of-seven series against the visiting Boston Celtics on Saturday night.

The threesome was on the floor together for just 202 minutes during the regular season as all three missed time with injuries.

But despite the three being in the formative stages of their on-court relationships, the second-seeded Nets are viewed as one of the top NBA title contenders.

It hasn't hurt that each player has been fine with sacrificing statistical goals in pursuit of making a title run.

"It's all about winning," said Nets guard James Harden, the three-time NBA scoring champion acquired from the Houston Rockets in mid-January. 

"I don't care about stats. My impact doesn't have to show up on the stat sheet for us to win.

"I think my job as a leader is to make sure everybody's playing well. If I'm doing that, I can focus on myself last. That's not a problem at all."

The seventh-seeded Celtics know they face a tough battle after going 0-3 against Brooklyn in the regular season.

Boston lost nine of its final 13 regular-season games before advancing into the playoffs with a 118-100 win over the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference play-in round. 

Jayson Tatum led the way with a scintillating 50-point effort.

Though the Celtics reached the conference finals in three of the past four seasons, they aren't viewed as a contender this season. And many others don't see Boston putting up a strong fight against the Nets.

"We know the odds are against us, we know what we're up against," Boston guard Marcus Smart said following Friday's practice. 

"This isn't our first time being up against a Goliath of this matter and being the underdog, so we just got to come out there and play -- all the cards on the table, no holding back. At this point, we have nothing to lose, so go out there and just have fun and do it."

Hindering the Celtics is the recent loss of standout guard Jaylen Brown to season-ending wrist surgery.

Kemba Walker stepped up with 29 points against Washington, but this series is Tatum's time to shine.

Tatum averaged 29.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in the three regular-season losses against the Nets. His high output was 38 points.

Tatum matched Larry Bird's franchise record of 60 points in an April victory over the San Antonio Spurs. He also had a 53-point game during the month prior to putting up 50 against Washington as he continues to approach superstar status.

"I guess it helps. I don't really get caught up in those who think I'm a superstar and those that don't," Tatum said. 

"What does that really mean? I know that my teammates, I've earned their respect. I've earned the respect of the guys I've played against and the coaches.

"I believe in myself, and that's all that matters."

No discussion is needed in terms of whether or not Brooklyn's three big-time performers are superstars. That's partly why Irving, the former Celtic, isn't the least bit concerned over the small amount of court time.

"We're pros. We've had kind of all the pressure on us to get back right or people have yet to see us play together," said Irving, who averaged 30.7 points in the three games against Boston. 

"I mean, you guys know how great we are as individuals. Everyone knows we're all-world players. We've been in this league for a long period of time, so we just go out there and just find a flow and stick to it.

"It's basketball. Just have some fun out there and just go out there and do what we do."