The Celtics Must Do Whatever Necessary to Avoid the Nets

Jayson Tatum Kevin Durant
Jayson Tatum Kevin Durant / Adam Glanzman/GettyImages

The Boston Celtics started the season like a lottery team and suddenly turned into a championship contender once the calendar flipped to 2022. It was an astounding turnaround that has very rarely happened before. Sure, bad teams become good teams, and mediocre teams become great teams, but rarely does a bad team become a great team in the span of less than one full season. They went from dysfunctional to scrappy to pretty good to sleeper contender to legitimate powerhouse in basically two months and it doesn't feel like a flash in the pan. The Celtics had a legit shot at an NBA title.

I say "had" because those hopes appeared to die with the report that Robert Williams would be out indefinitely with a torn meniscus. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the two stars of the team solar system, but Williams is the piece that elevates that pairing from good to great. He can block any shot on the paint and is one of the best big men in the league at defending on the perimeter, but more importantly he's a huge lob threat on offense that prevents Boston from stagnating into the isolation offense that was at the root of their early-season issues. The Celtics are good without him in the lineup. With Williams, they are championship contenders.

Wednesday morning brought optimism for the Celtics faithful, as Adrian Wojnarowski reported Williams underwent surgery but has a four-to-six week timetable for his return-- which means he could be back in uniform as early as the second round of the playoffs.

Williams is not a guarantee to return at full strength and there is legitimate reason to be worried about his long-term health, considering the 24-year-old has missed nearly half of his first four seasons in the league due to injury. But it is a ray of light, a hope that if the Celtics last long enough, they'll get the third-most important player on their team back when it matters most.

In the best-case scenario, all the Celtics have to do is get past their Round 1 opponent and reinforcements will arrive. Boston is the third seed in the East as of today, so most years getting to the second round wouldn't be too big a problem. This year, it is. Because there is a slumbering giant at the bottom of the conference standings: the Brooklyn Nets.

Maybe the Nets are not slumbering giants. They're clinging onto a play-in spot right now, mostly due to the fact that Kevin Durant missed a month of games with his own knee issue and Kyrie Irving was unavailable due to obvious reasons. Even with both back in the lineup for the last week, Brooklyn has shown some serious issues. Defense remains a significant problem. Durant and Kyrie could combine for 90 points and still lose because they give up 140. That was, in fact, the problem the last time the Nets saw Boston, a game in which Brooklyn's superstar duo combined for nearly half their team's points but lost anyway, 126-120.

But nobody wants to see KD and Kyrie in the playoffs. Absolutely nobody. And as the season winds down, the Celtics need to pull out all the dirty standing-jockeying tricks in their bag to avoid Brooklyn.

With around seven games to go in the season, Brooklyn is almost certainly going to be in the play-in tournament and end up as either a seven or eight-seed. Boston could be anything from the top seed to the fourth seed. Their range of opponents includes the Raptors, the Cavs, the Bulls, even the Hornets or Hawks if they get hot for a week. Any one of those options is better than the Nets. Boston is capable of taking down Brooklyn, but again-- this is Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving we're talking about. They rightfully strike fear into any defense's heart.

After a Sunday win over the Timberwolves (the game in which Williams got hurt), Jaylen Brown told a reporter after the game that the Celtics aren't running from anybody. But there isn't any shame in sidestepping two of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen.

Any title contender needs a bit of luck along the path to a championship. If that luck emerges in the form of avoiding the Nets in the first round of the playoffs, perhaps aided by a well-timed rest night for Boston's two star wings, then the Celtics would be very well off indeed.