The team in the Nets’ way is the one they just can’t get around.
They are going to have to figure out a way to beat the Celtics, unlock whatever cheat code is necessary to defeat the NBA’s best team. Because the road to a championship — hell, right now the path to even reaching the Eastern Conference finals — runs through Boston. And the Celtics have taken the measure of the Nets again and again … and again.
The Nets have lost 10 straight games to the Celtics, the latest a 139-96 nightmare Wednesday night at TD Garden. Right now the teams are on a collision course to meet in the playoffs, and those haven’t gone the Nets’ way.
“As a competitor, I’m not going to stop until I figure out what this methodology to the Boston Celtics is right now and why they’re so hot,” Kyrie Irving said ruefully.
“[The] main reason is just how connected they are, how much they’ve played together, how many minutes they’ve logged together. And that chip on their shoulder, you can see it, you can feel it. We just have to develop a tougher mentality here. And when we do that, I feel like we’ll be a better competition with them. I know we will.”
Irving sounded both wistful and envious. Hey, the grass is always greener on the other side of the leprechaun patch. Or in a Celtics jersey.
The Nets’ mentality hasn’t matched up to their talent since the franchise landed Irving and Kevin Durant in 2019. Irving’s defection from Boston hurt the Celtics initially, but they’ve quickly recovered as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown matured, and they’ve climbed right over the Nets to the top of the conference.
Now, Boston has the best record in the NBA, and the Nets, who are 4-7 since losing Durant to a sprained right MCL on Jan. 8, sit fourth in the East. If the postseason started today and went according to chalk, the teams would face off in a second-round clash, their third straight meeting in the playoffs.
That doesn’t bode well for the Nets.
The only teams in the East they haven’t beaten this season are the Celtics (0-3) and the No. 3 76ers (0-2). But the Nets took the 2021-22 season series from the Sixers, so it’s clear the Celtics are the bigger issue. After beating them in the first round in 2021, they have lost 10 straight to them, starting with a 126-91 rout on Feb. 8, 2022.
“It’s probably a team we’re going to see down the line,” Seth Curry said, “so just learn from it, move on and get better.”
“I’m tired of losing to them. But we’ll see them again. We’ll see them again in March; we’ll probably see them again in playoffs. So just another learning experience and we got to keep building,” Nic Claxton said. “We’ll see ’em again. You just take it on the chin. … We got our ass kicked [Wednesday]. Just keep moving forward.”
The Nets had their lack of length exposed last season in a first-round playoff sweep by the Celtics. This season, with an emerging Claxton, a healthy Simmons and Durant, the Nets expected to have three switchable 7-foot wingspan defenders. But Durant and Simmons are currently out with injuries, as is forward T.J. Warren.
Against the Celtics, the Nets have looked not just undersized, but also outclassed. They were smothered Wednesday despite not facing Marcus Smart, who is out with a right ankle sprain.
“We just can’t be one of those teams in [the Celtics’] way,” Irving said. “We’ve got to be one of those teams that stands up to them and shows them that we’re going to be competition for them moving forward.”
Moving forward obviously starts with Durant’s return. But the Nets must get Simmons not only fit, but in form. If he can’t be counted on, general manager Sean Marks may need to add more length and defense by the trade deadline, which is this coming Thursday.
The Nets were reminded of some tough lessons Wednesday, including the importance of dealing with the Celtics’ star wings. But the most important was a reminder that death, taxes and having to go through Boston seem sure things.
“It’s a good challenge,” Claxton said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to play against them in March and the playoffs. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
A challenge they haven’t lived up to.