Forsberg: Six questions we want answered in Celtics-Nets series


Kevin Garnett would be the first to remind us that anything is possible, but the Boston Celtics face a mighty tall task after drawing the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Nets, with a finally healthy Big Three and a talent-filled supporting cast, enter the postseason with the best odds to win the NBA title. There is an obvious volatility factor given the personalities involved but there is no denying the talent and potential of this Brooklyn super team.

In the aftermath of his team’s play-in win, Brad Stevens suggested that the Nets are "the most talented team that’s been assembled since I’ve been in the NBA,” and admitted he has “a hard time seeing them lose.”

Celtics-Nets playoff simulation: How first-round series could play out

Same here, Brad.

Given the absence of Jaylen Brown, the uncertainty with Robert Williams as he battles turf toe, and the general inconsistencies of the 2020-21 Celtics, it seems fair to temper expectations. But, short of a major upset, what should Celtics fans be watching in this series?

Here are six questions that we want answered over the next couple weeks.

1. Can Jayson Tatum further assert himself alongside MVP competition?

Tatum is putting on a heck of a show to close out the 2020-21 season. He’s got three 50-plus-point games over a 39-day span. He’s averaging 30.9 points per game over the 19 games in that six-week period. As good as his 60-point night was against the Spurs, his 50-point effort in the play-in against Washington might have been even better given the magnitude of the moment and the star power on the other side of the court.

The Nets will trot out two former MVPs in Kevin Durant and James Harden, and a seven-time All-Star coming off an uber-efficient 50/40/90 season in Kyrie Irving. It’s going to be extremely difficult for Tatum to be the best player on the floor. But can he trade haymakers with those stars at times?

Tatum got progressively better against the Nets this season, including a 38-point effort in a late April loss. For all the MVP-in-the-making chatter that spilled out after the play-in triumph, this is a chance to truly show he’s on a path to joining that conversation.

2. Can the Celtics be competitive with a championship-level opponent?

This is not to suggest that simply hanging close and bowing early is any sort of victory for Boston. But the doomsday scenario here is the Celtics getting their doors blown off in a short series because -- regardless of health woes -- the confirmation that Boston has slipped well behind an East elite would further cloud a murky path forward.

So how do we define "competitive" in this series? Is it enough for Boston to stick close, steal a game, and bow in five? It doesn’t feel like a team with 17 banners hanging above its gym should be OK with a participation trophy. How we view this series might ultimately hinge on how well Brooklyn plays and whether it was reasonable to think Boston had a chance to push them.

But we’ll say this: We’re intrigued to see how Boston plays without the burden of expectations that weighed this team down at times this season. The Nets are going to have a whole bunch of pressure to thrive and Boston could put a little scare into them by stealing a game early.

We’re eager to see what Brad Stevens and his staff are able to scheme up in a best-of-seven series. Can the Celtics throw it back to early in Stevens’ NBA tenure when injuries and talent disparity were negated by grit, defense, and a desire to prove doubters wrong?

Celtics Talk Podcast: Will Kyrie, Nets dominate first round playoff series vs Celtics? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

If Boston can make this series interesting and walk away wondering if a healthy Brown could have further leveled the playing field, then the offseason gloom won’t be as pronounced.

3. How does Kemba Walker hold up in a well-spaced series?

Despite all the starts and stops in a season where the Celtics put a premium on taking care off Kemba Walker’s balky knee, the veteran point guard has produced some solid basketball at the finish line of the season. Now it’s time to rip off the Band-Aid a bit and we’re interested to see how Walker performs in a series that includes at least two off days before each of the first three games.

One of the biggest decisions the Celtics have moving forward is whether Walker will remain part of this core for the duration of a deal that has two years and $73.7 million remaining (the final year is a player option). Off the court, Walker has been perfect for nurturing the development of the Jays. But it’s fair to wonder if he’s an ideal fit on the court where the team might benefit more from a pass-first guard.

Bean: What Celtics fans should root for in series vs. Nets

The more pressing issue is the contract. As Boston’s cap sheet bloats with Tatum’s extension set to kick in, ownership can swallow hard on Walker’s big contract number if his play keeps Boston in the title conversation. But it might also force the team to ponder other tough decisions, including the long-term future of Marcus Smart. 

Walker’s play in games of this magnitude could help the team plot the most prudent path forward.

4. Does Evan Fournier set his price tag in this series?

Near the top of Danny Ainge’s offseason to-do list -- well, after the Robert Williams rookie extension, but we’re slightly biased on that topic -- is deciding just how far the team is willing to extend to retain trade-deadline acquisition Evan Fournier.

There are a ton of variables at play here, not the least of which is what the market dictates for Fournier's price tag as he hits unrestricted free agency in a summer that could have some deep-pocketed suitors. Fournier has fit in nicely in Boston and will be thrust into an even larger role in Brown's absence.

There is no denying the offensive talents that Fournier possesses and, further removed from his bout with COVID, he’s been a nice complement to this core. Fournier added much-needed shooting and his ability to be a secondary playmaker has fit nicely, especially in minutes alongside Walker.

All that said, we’re intrigued to see Fournier holds up defensively. He’s really had some rough moments in Boston’s switch-happy scheme and too often loses track of his man when ball-watching. Fournier has size but he has to be in the right spots and compete harder on that end because there simply aren't a lot of places to hide him against this Nets squad.

One series does not ultimately dictate the price tag of a player with nine seasons of NBA experience. But Boston’s comfort level with splurging might be impacted by Fournier’s performance in this series.

5. Does Kyrie Irving get his comeuppance in Boston? And then can we all move on?

Kyrie Irving is going to get booed in Boston. A lot. It’s his first trip back here with fans in attendance and Celtics Nation is going to let him hear it after getting left at the altar after the 2019 season. Loosening COVID restrictions could allow Boston to cram even more fans inside to boo Irving.

We’d be lying if we said we’re not intrigued by how Irving handles it all. Does it impact his play on the floor? Having Durant and Harden alongside affords room for any of the Nets to struggle and not experience a real drop-off in play. There’s also a world where Irving feeds off that negative energy.

Kyrie's history vs. Celtics includes dazzling plays, odd moments

And while it’s a storyline that will dominate this series -- and rightfully so -- here’s hoping fans get out their emotions and then move on. The Irving departure most certainly threw a wrench into Boston’s plans and complicated their title quests. But there is little good in obsessing about what could have been and lingering on Irving beyond Games 3 or 4 seems like a waste of energy.

6. Which Celtics supporting cast members nail their final auditions?

Here’s a list of Celtics players/coaches that we feel certain will be back next season: Tatum, Brown and Stevens. That’s it. That’s the list. (Well, we’d probably throw Rob Williams on there, too).

Tough decisions loom for just about everyone else. The back end of the roster is almost certainly going to see some sort of overhaul after Boston’s depth was repeatedly exposed this season. 

This is one last chance for younger players to make an impression and likely in limited roles. We’d probably throw Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard in the safe zone if it weren’t for the fact that any big-splash moves the Celtics make might require parting with young talent to facilitate those moves. Ultimately, the team must move forward with the idea of finding pieces that best accentuate the Jays.

From Walker to Fournier to Smart and everyone off the bench, this is one last chance to show the team should commit to them long term.

Contact Us