The Boston Celtics’ reward for finishing second in the Eastern Conference is a first-round series with the Brooklyn Nets. Despite needing the play-in tournament to reach the 2022 NBA playoffs, Brooklyn is a contender to go on a championship run.

Brooklyn vs. Boston is no ordinary No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup. Just look at the betting odds. The lower-seeded Nets have opened as -120 favorites at DraftKings Sportsbook to win the series. The Celtics are the slightest of underdogs with -110 odds for the best-of-seven set.

Injuries, Kyrie Irving’s refusal to comply with New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and James Harden’s decision to quit on the Nets resulted in a 44-38 record during the regular season. Brooklyn is not the same team that was viewed as the clear favorite to win the 2022 NBA Finals for much of the year.

Brooklyn doesn’t have three All-Stars. Ben Simmons hasn’t played since being traded for Harden, and it’s highly unlikely that he’ll offer any significant contribution in the first round.

But the Nets are 37-19 when Durant is in the lineup. Irving is back to being a full-time player. Seth Curry, the player from the Harden trade that has contributed the most for Brooklyn, has returned from an ankle injury.

Since the end of January, Boston has been the dominant team that Brooklyn was supposed to be in 2022. The Celtics went 26-6 to end the regular season, bouncing back from a .500 record through the first 50 games.

The Celtics rank ninth in offensive efficiency, though Boston’s 123.5 offense rating in the last 15 games is the best in basketball. Defense has been the hallmark of the team’s success. The Celtics give up fewer points per 100 possessions than anyone. Robert Williams and Marcus Smart are All-Defense candidates.

Williams isn’t expected to return from a torn meniscus in time for the first round of the playoffs. It’s a major blow to the NBA’s best defense. Williams had eight rebounds, five blocks in two steals in Boston’s 126-120 win over Brooklyn on March 6.

It was a big victory for the Celtics, who outlasted the Nets with Durant and Irving combining for 56 points. Jayson Tatum nearly outscored Brooklyn’s stars by himself, dropping 54 points on 30 field-goal attempts.

Tatum will likely be named to the All-NBA First-Team. He performed like an MVP candidate for much of the season and averaged 30.6 points on 50.6% shooting after the All-Star break. Tatum might have to put up similar numbers in order for Boston to win the series.

Durant is the best player in this series, if not the entire NBA. A season ago, he nearly dragged an injury-riddled Nets’ team past the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in a seven-game, second-round series. Durant averaged 35.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game against Milwaukee.

Durant’s 25 points, 11 assists and three blocks in Brooklyn’s play-in win over the Cleveland Cavaliers are only a taste of what’s to come in the playoffs. Irving scored 34 points on 12-15 shooting, continuing an incredibly efficient season.

With Irving fully healthy, the current version of the Nets is better than the team that the Bucks eliminated. As well as they've played over the last few months, it’s much too early to say that the 2022 Celtics are as good as the 2021 Bucks.

Brooklyn’s defense is a major weakness. The Nets are 20th in the NBA with a 112.8 defensive rating. Tatum could very well get his 30 points per game. Jaylen Brown should have plenty of success on offense, as well.

Late in close games, Brooklyn has the advantage. Durant is oftentimes unstoppable. Brown is the better overall player, but Irving is the more reliable scorer in clutch situations. The absence of Williams in the middle of Boston’s defense could be what ultimately makes the difference.

Both teams are good enough to win a hard-fought series, but Durant makes the Nets the best bet.

Series Prediction: Nets in seven

Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving
Kevin Durant (L) and Kyrie Irving (R) of the Brooklyn Nets converse during a game against the Toronto Raptors at Amalie Arena on April 27, 2021. Getty Images/Julio Aguilar