BOSTON — If Vegas set odds on the first Celtics or Nets player to stir the pot publicly, Kyrie Irving would’ve been a heavy favorite, probably followed by Kevin Durant, then maybe Ben Simmons or Marcus Smart. Bruce Brown would’ve been a long shot.
“Now they don’t have Robert Williams, so they have less of a presence in the paint, and we could attack Al Horford and Theis,” Brown said on Tuesday.
Yet anyone as confident as Brown sat following the Nets’ 115-108 play-in win over the Cavaliers would’ve scored following Brown’s slight of Daniel Theis and Al Horford as replacement options for the injured Robert Williams III. The comments quickly traveled back to Boston, even after Durant immediately tried to walk them back.
“It ain’t going to be that easy,” Durant followed.
Ime Udoka delivered a more stern rebuke of the comments, and a defense of Boston’s big men at practice on Wednesday. Theis spoke the next day, smiling having already heard what Brown said. The Celtics’ players offered little response to the slight, other than promising to take action on the court. Now Brown, a Boston native who received cheers last time he played in TD Garden, might become a bigger focus of fan scorn than Irving. Though I’m not willing to bet on that one.
Brown had a point. Since the Nets assumed their current roster at the trade deadline, he rejoined the starting lineup after previously falling out of the rotation and returned to his mini center role. The Nets deploy Brown into the short roll, high post area after setting screens for Durant and Irving, allowing him to finish around the basket or make plays as the defense rotates. He’s averaged 14.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game on 53.4% shooting over his last 26 games. His three-point stroke also elevated to 47.4% over 57 attempts. Brown scored 18 points with nine rebounds and eight assists on Tuesday before his caffeinated, as Durant put it, press conference.
“It depends what we want to take away,” Udoka told CLNS Media. “Obviously, Irving and Durant are the focal point there, but he impacts the game similar to what Draymond Green does when guys are keyed on Curry and Thompson. We can go to some simple things like switching and taking away his rolls. That’s an easy one there, but matchup-wise, we’ll figure out what we like best as far as who we want to start on him and take some of those things away, because he is a huge spark for that team. The energy he brings in kind of being a wild card, x-factor for them, besides the shooters and the rebounders, we can take that away if we’d like to.”
Brown recently proved to be the best litmus test for the formerly unbreakable, historic defensive scheme keyed by Williams III guarding perimeter players who can’t create for themselves. The give-and-take between Brown and Williams became my biggest takeaway the last time Brooklyn and Boston met, a 126-120 win for the Celtics.
Williams racked up five blocks with his 10 points and eight rebounds playing away from Brown. The Nets spent much of the third quarter trying to make Boston pay for that scheme, sending Brown downhill or hitting him for catch-and-shoot threes. He scored 16 points, including 10 in that third, with six rebounds and five assists, but he missed a wide open layup to start the fourth and Brooklyn got away from Durant and Irving looking for him.
On an afternoon where Durant scored 37 points in TD Garden, Brown took nearly half as many shots as Durant’s 21. That was previously the goal of Boston’s defense. No. 1, force players to score in isolation, or No. 2, promote awkward sets and atypical pick-and-roll combinations to try to pull Williams III into actions. It didn’t always work that smoothly, but despite giving up 120 points, the scheme kept the Nets off-balance for key stretches.
That’s where Theis and Brown’s comments enter. The Celtics prepared Theis for an off-ball role at the four, similar to what Williams III played in, with Horford likely to draw the burlier Andre Drummond in the post. That means Theis would guard Brown, who could either try to attack him head on, or utilize his pick-and-roll prowess to allow Durant and Irving to line up the Celtics’ big man. That’s likely Brooklyn’s game plan.
“They’ve found a good spot. When teams try to double team Kyrie and KD, they can find him in the paint kind of like how Golden State uses Draymond with handoffs and attacking floaters and finding the big,” Theis told CLNS Media. “Obviously Kyrie and KD get a lot of the attention, but also we have a lot of great defenders, long wings that we can guard one-on-one (with). We don’t have to go double team that many times or that quick in the game. So we take away his ability to play in the middle of the zone when we trap the pick-and-rolls. Other teams, like Cleveland did, gave up four, five lobs. Just Bruce Brown just lobbing it up to the rim. Defensively, we have so many guys who can guard one-on-one. That’s what we’re going to do, take pride and it’s playoffs. You can’t just go double team from the first second. They expect it. To double team KD, it’s not easy. That’s a seven-footer, so we’re going to guard one-on-one.”
While the Celtics don’t plan to double Durant often, since the Nets score 1.16 points per 100 possessions when he gets double teamed, they will try to show crowds and make the court smaller. That’s another area Brown can hurt them in by cutting. With Nic Claxton, an unsteady pick-and-roll finisher, Drummond, more of a post-up center, and LaMarcus Aldridge relegated to pick-and-pop at this point, Brown is practically Brooklyn’s 6-4 center on offense. He’s grown from the last time Boston saw him and ready to damage them if the Celtics hedge too hard on the Nets’ stars.
Another counter Udoka and the Celtics have prepared, and an overarching theme entering the series, is the Nets’ ability to guard. Boston once scouted Brown as a 6-4, stout guard with some similarities to Marcus Smart before the Pistons drafted him in 2018. He can defend a variety of players, but Brown’s among a number of Nets players that Brown and Tatum will challenge as explosive, bigger wings.
Between Brooklyn’s smaller guards, like Irving and Seth Curry, and the Nets’ slower-footed centers, Udoka wants to pressure Brooklyn’s offensive talents by making them defend. Perhaps even forcing them into foul trouble. The Nets’ bench options feature smaller guards like Patty Mills and Goran Dragic who’ll have even harder times guarding. The Celtics, Udoka reaffirmed Thursday, haven’t anticipated Simmons’ return at all.
“We still have two high-level defenders back there,” Udoka said. “Big guys with Daniel and Al, and we have layers to our defense. So it’s not like we’re getting blown by and Rob’s protecting. We still have Marcus, Jaylen, Jayson and everybody else in-between. We know how he scores and how he attacks in a lot of drop situations. Well, we can take that away with how we want to guard. They think it’s attack time because Rob is out, obviously we’ve played in quite a few games without him now and have done well enough beating some good teams.”