The teams are technically the same, and so are the top three players — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving for the Nets, Jayson Tatum for the Celtics — as the franchises face off in the opening round of the NBA playoffs for the second straight season.
Otherwise, everything is different about the best-of-seven, first-round series between the second-seeded Celtics and seventh-seeded Nets that will begin Sunday afternoon in Boston.
A year ago, the Nets were the heavy favorites, the second seed with title hopes. This year, the Celtics are seeded second and expected to advance with home-court advantage.
The respective rosters — particularly Boston’s — are nothing like those from last season. For one, standout wing/forward Jaylen Brown is healthy for the Celtics after missing the series a year ago. Boston’s coach, Ime Udoka, was Steve Nash’s top assistant in Brooklyn last season.
Boston traded Kemba Walker and allowed Evan Fournier to leave via free agency after the five-game series loss to the Nets. The Celtics added starting center Al Horford in the offseason and acquired well-rounded guard Derrick White and depth forward Daniel Theis from the Spurs at the trade deadline.
The result was an unexpectedly strong season for the Atlantic Division champions. The Celtics own the best record (17-5) in the NBA since the All-Star break, are 28-7 dating to Jan. 21 and finished the season No. 1 in the NBA in defensive rating and ninth offensively.
The Celtics, it should be noted, are expected to be without big man Robert Williams III, their leading rebounder and shot-blocker, who suffered a torn left meniscus in late March. But they did win four of their final five games without him.
The Nets also are very different, aside from the big two of Durant and Irving. Sharpshooter Joe Harris appeared in just 14 games before undergoing two surgeries on his left ankle and is out for the season. James Harden was traded to the 76ers on Feb. 10. The current roster includes a number of key newcomers, such as Patty Mills, Andre Drummond and Seth Curry.
Unlike the Celtics’ changes, though, the Nets’ turnover didn’t equate to a better regular season. The Nets went 44-38, a major drop from their 48-24 record in 2020-21. Durant missed 27 games mostly due to a knee injury, however, and Irving only appeared in 29 games due to his refusal to meet the New York City COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which barred him from playing in home games until just recently. The Nets were 33-19 when Durant was in the lineup and 12-6 when Irving joined him.
Durant and Irving will be together, barring injury, for the entirety of this series — one of the few constants from the opening-round series last spring.