What should we expect now that the Brooklyn Nets have advanced out of the NBA’s play-in tournament to face the Boston Celtics in what might be the most anticipated matchup of the playoffs’ opening round?

Stuck in a play-in spot after going 5-16 during the 21 games that star Kevin Durant missed from Jan. 17 through March 1 with an MCL sprain, the Nets secured the No. 7 seed on Tuesday, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 115-108 behind a combined 59 points and 23 assists from Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Despite being in the play-in, the Nets have the second-best odds of winning the Eastern Conference according to lines from Caesars Sportsbook — just ahead of the Celtics. While Brooklyn was tumbling down the East standings, Boston was surging from below .500 as recently as Jan. 21 to finish with the conference’s second seed in the playoffs after winning Sunday’s season finale to pass the Milwaukee Bucks in the standings.

Would Boston have been better off ducking Brooklyn? And just how good are these versions of the two teams with Durant and Irving healthy for the Nets and the Celtics without center Robert Williams III? The answers will determine which team advances.

MORE: 75 things to know about the 2022 playoffs

Should the Celtics have avoided Brooklyn?

When the Bucks lost to Cleveland on Sunday, playing none of their starters beyond the first minute of a game the Cavaliers needed to win to secure the No. 8 spot entering the play-in, it left Boston with a choice. By winning, the Celtics would finish second and potentially face the Nets. A loss would drop Boston to fourth in the case of a Philadelphia 76ers win, meaning a first-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors.

It’s possible the Celtics couldn’t have lost their way out of second even if they wanted. They faced the Memphis Grizzlies, who also rested their starters with the No. 2 seed in the West already secured. Boston coach Ime Udoka opted to play his top players their usual minutes through the third quarter, by which point the Celtics already led by 25.

As compared to Milwaukee’s decision, Boston’s was more complex. The Bucks had the security of being able to drop no lower than third, meaning a first-round matchup against the struggling Chicago Bulls. By contrast, the Raptors would have presented a greater challenge in the opening round after going 27-13 over the season’s final 40 games to climb from the play-in to the fifth seed.

Additionally, the Celtics might have found themselves short-handed for games in Toronto because of Canadian vaccination requirements. As my colleague Tim Bontemps reported last month, Boston hasn’t been willing to confirm that all players are fully vaccinated and eligible for road games against the Raptors.

Two other factors probably tipped the scales in favor of the Celtics risking a matchup with the Nets. First, the nature of the play-in tournament meant there was a chance Cleveland pulled the upset Tuesday, making Brooklyn (potentially) the top-seeded Miami Heat‘s problem. Second, Boston isn’t just thinking about winning a first-round series. The No. 2 seed gives the Celtics home court in at least the conference semifinals, as well.

Ultimately, I think Boston was right to win, despite the unusual challenge the Nets present.

How good are these Nets?

Brooklyn’s regular-season metrics reflect at least three very different teams. The Nets started the season without Irving, who was ineligible to play in home games because of his own vaccination status, but started 21-8 behind the duo of Durant and James Harden before being hit hard by COVID-19 in mid-December.

With the rotation already in flux, Brooklyn welcomed Irving back to the lineup for road games and alternated wins and losses in January before Durant’s injury. By the time Durant returned in March, Harden was a member of the 76ers.

Since then, the Nets have gone 10-5 in the 15 games Durant and Irving have played together (including the play-in win over the Cavaliers) with a point differential of plus-8.0 against a slightly more difficult set of opponents than average.

Having both Durant and Irving available has allowed Brooklyn coach Steve Nash to find a more consistent rotation after using a league-high 43 starting lineups in 82 games. It’s also allowed everyone else to play off the Nets’ stars. Andre Drummond, added in the Harden trade, has solidified the center position along with backup Nicolas Claxton, while forward Bruce Brown Jr. averaged 14.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG and 3.7 APG after the All-Star break.

Brown has excelled at both making 3s and playing the unorthodox screener role Brooklyn found for him last season.

The one lingering concern for the Nets is depth. They were outscored by nine points in the 6:21 Durant rested on Tuesday. Irving and Brown both played over 40 minutes, as well. That was acceptable for a one-game play-in situation with four days off before Game 1 in Boston. Durant’s heavy minutes finally caught up to Brooklyn in overtime of Game 7 last year against the Bucks. We’ll see whether the Celtics can also take advantage.

How much will Boston miss Williams?

The Celtics would surely have felt more comfortable with this matchup three weeks ago. Back then, Boston was the league’s hottest team, going 24-4 in a 28-game span with an incredible plus-15.8 point differential, far and away the NBA’s best in that span. In the last of those wins, however, the Celtics lost starting center Williams to a meniscus tear that required surgery. Williams’ timetable (4-6 weeks) likely rules him out for this series.

Because of rest during the season’s final two weeks, it’s challenging to evaluate how Boston has played since Williams went down. Two of the team’s three losses in that span (in overtime at Toronto and at Milwaukee last week) came with starters Al Horford and Jayson Tatum out of the lineup, and Jaylen Brown joined them on the bench for the Raptors game. Meanwhile, the Celtics took advantage at times against other short-handed opponents.

Over the course of the season, Boston has a robust plus-7.1 net rating with Horford on the court and Williams on the bench according to NBA Advanced Stats, a good proxy for rotation minutes. (The Celtics were a dominant plus-13.2 per 100 possessions with both frontcourt starters together.) Their offense hasn’t dropped off by much, despite losing Williams’ rim-running threat, and Boston’s defensive drop-off can be traced in large part to opponents shooting better from 3-point range. Per Cleaning the Glass, opponents have hit 38.5% of their 3s against the Celtics in competitive minutes when Horford plays without Williams, as compared to 34% overall.

Although Udoka hasn’t needed to rely on his stars as much as Nash, shortening the rotation in the playoffs could also work to Boston’s advantage. With Williams unavailable, the Celtics can stick to an eight-man rotation with Derrick White and Grant Williams as their primary reserves, joined by Payton Pritchard. Ramping up Tatum’s minutes will be particularly helpful, given Boston was outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions with Tatum on the bench.

Can the Nets maintain an extra gear?

With the current versions of these teams closer than their records indicate, I think the outcome of the series will ultimately depend on Brooklyn’s ability to reach a higher level than we’ve seen in the last few weeks. The Nets didn’t exactly dominate a series of teams that were lottery-bound, short-handed or both.

Still, we’ve seen Brooklyn do more even after the Harden trade. Their 129-100 win in Philadelphia facing Harden for the first time was the crowning example, but they also won by 15 in Miami in late March. That version of the Nets will be difficult for anyone in the East to beat.

The real question is whether Brooklyn can sustain that level of effort and intensity for a full, seven-game series. My guess is that they can’t against a team as good and well-coached as the Celtics. I’m picking Boston in seven.

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