jayson tatum, kyrie irving
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

What a long, strange trip it’s been for the Brooklyn Nets. The ups and downs of the 2021-22 season included Kyrie Irving’s vaccination drama, James Harden’s trade push, and a lengthy injury for Kevin Durant.

Despite all the issues, the Nets are exactly where they want to be — in the playoffs. They took down the Cleveland Cavaliers handily on Tuesday night. Although the Cavs cut the lead to six in the fourth quarter, the Nets led by 22 at one point in the second half. By the time Cleveland clawed their way back into the game, they had no energy to complete the comeback.

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Nets found a way to get the job done. That’s been the story of this season so far.

The next obstacle to overcome — the Boston Celtics — won’t be so easy. Storylines abound in this matchup.

Boston is one of the hottest teams in the NBA and they rose from a potential play-in team to the No. 2 seed in the blink of an eye. For what it’s worth, Brooklyn easily dispatched Boston in five games in 2021. This year might not be so easy. This series is a coin flip according to most sportsbooks.

The Celtics rejiggered the roster and it’s working. Bringing back old mainstays like Al Horford and Daniel Theis brought an identity back into the building. Check that, Horford and Theis helped re-establish an identity, but this team is all about its top three — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart.

At the moment, the Nets only have a “big two” to match up with the Celtics. Durant and Irving are raising the level at the right time, but they can’t win a playoff series alone. Will Ben Simmons be back in time to provide a lift? There is optimism that he will be healthy eventually and he’s “walking around like Jordan” as ridiculous as that sounds.

While Brooklyn waits for Simmons, it’s up to the role players to step up. Bruce Brown played one of his best games as a Net in the play-in game, racking up 18 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, and three steals.

In the frontcourt, Andre Drummond brought the early muscle with 16 points and eight boards. Nic Claxton took Brooklyn home with 13 points and nine rebounds, most of which came in the second half. Expect Nets coach Steve Nash to stick to this formula — Drummond early, Claxton late — for much of the playoffs. Claxton’s versatility gives Brooklyn more flexibility defensively.

The Nets have reached the playoffs, but the goal is still a championship. If they can do that, nothing else matters. Now, the real season begins for Brooklyn.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.