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The Nets held Celtics All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker to 11-of-36 shooting from the field in their Game 1 win on Saturday night. The law of averages would suggest two of the NBA’s most elite shooters won’t have poor playoff performances in back-to-back games.
The eye test in the film room, however, shows a Nets team that stayed grounded in their defensive principles. Brooklyn forced Boston’s two prolific scorers into difficult shots all night long. Tatum only saw one wide-open shot in Game 1, and he missed it. Walker didn’t get clean looks until later in the fourth quarter, when he converted back-to-back threes in the game’s final two minutes.
“We know who we’re playing regardless of the stats. We know their capabilities, what they like to do, what their tendencies are and we have to make it difficult for them,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash after Monday’s practice. “They make or miss shots. It’s almost secondary to our approach and our discipline.”
If Tatum and Walker have nightmares from Game 1, there won’t just be one ghost haunting their sleep. The Nets have been working on their switching defense all season, and the work paid dividends against two of the craftiest scorers in all of basketball.
If Tatum wasn’t settling for a contested side-step or step-back three, he was met by a number of Nets defenders who collapsed and helped on his drives to the rim. The same can be said of Walker, whose third made field goal came on his 10th attempt, a pull-back midrange jumper over both Kyrie Irving and Blake Griffin’s extended arms.
“I think you look at the overall scope of the game. There weren’t a ton of shots where they were just missing wide open shots. I thought we at least made it somewhat difficult,” Griffin said after Monday’s practice. “Tatum and Kemba are both explosive scorers and are very capable of hitting very tough shots, but we’ll have to live with them hitting very tough shots.”
The Celtics, however, plan to make the adjustment, as any well-coached team does after getting exploited in the first game of a playoff series. They will find more efficient ways to attack the Nets when they switch defenders on the pick-and-roll. They are not going to die by contested shots if X’s and O’s guru Brad Stevens can craft more efficient and open looks within the flow of the offense.
The Celtics believe they got caught up trying to attack the Nets’ switching defense. There is a fraction of a second that gives a ball-handler a window to make a move in attacking the switch. Walker, for example, shot one-of-five on threes hoisted within that window, with the screener’s man rotating in time to contest the shot more often than not.
“When teams are switching, sometimes you like to exploit those matchups, but you can do that at any point in the game, especially early in the game,” said Celtics big man Tristan Thompson. “When teams are switching, there’s someone out there you can take advantage of.”
If they didn’t attack the switch in the window before the screener’s man rotated over, both Tatum and Walker went to the isolation set. For Tatum, it meant a number of side-step or step-back threes to create separation from a Nets defender. He shot five airballs on the night, and when he drove to the basket, he was almost always met by a helping big man.
“If you have that intensity and fire and will, that covers up a lot of mistakes. So that was the most important thing for us,” Nash said. “Jayson’s capable of scoring any night, so we’re not sitting here like we have the answer for Tatum. No. He had a big impact on the game, I thought, although he didn’t have a classic shooting night.”
The Nets are going to live with the Celtics making tough shots, but the Celtics want to attack switches in a way that will create better looks, not contested ones. Tatum and Walker are capable of making many of the same high degree-of-difficulty shots Irving can, but, much like the Nets, they don’t want to rely on their stars hitting low-percentage shots.
“We can always get isolation threes, but we have to try to get into the paint, get paint touches and swing it out for better-looking threes,” Thompson said. “Anyone can take an isolation stepback three, but we want to get the ball popping and moving because a team like this that is very good offensively, you’ve got to make them work defensively because if you take their legs and Joe Harris misses a couple, it changes the whole perspective of the game.”
Nash says the Nets are anticipating adjustments from the Celtics. Brooklyn’s coaching staff has their own adjustments tucked away in case Boston’s approach to Game 2 is a glaring change from the series-opener.
No matter what the Celtics do, the Nets are set to continue to follow their own blueprint. An opposing team’s adjustments will have little effect on the Nets if they continue to refine a defense that made a statement to open the series.
“I think we’re in a position after Game 1 where we just have to be solid with our approach,” Nash said. “We did a lot of things well. We did a lot of things that need improvement, and if we continue to do the things we did well again, and at the same time clean up some of the things that we can do better, I think it puts us in position to compete and try to win the game. The most important thing is having the right approach.”