And Van Gundy, who along with play-by-play voice Brian Anderson called the first two games of the Celtics’ first-round series with the Nets and will have Game 4 Monday night, wants to make something clear: He believes completely in this turbo-charged version of the Celtics, who took a 2-0 lead into Game 3 Saturday night.
“I think people have been sleeping on them,” Van Gundy said. “They’ve been the best team in the East by a pretty decent margin for the last 2½ or three months of the season. If you look at the second half of the year, the last 41 games, they were No. 1 in the league offensively and No. 1 in the league defensively. And 41 games is a long period of time. We’re not talking, like, 10 games. They’ve been absolutely dominant.”
While so many elements changed for the better — Jayson Tatum became a willing playmaker, Marcus Smart thrived as a true point guard, Robert Williams emerged as the defensive fulcrum — Van Gundy said it was the improvement of the defense from solid to suffocating that sparked the turnaround.
“I was watching them quite a bit early in the season, and their defense was pretty good,” Van Gundy said. “They made more mistakes then because they switch as much as anybody in the league. They switch off the ball as well as on the ball. They had some breakdowns. But they just kept getting better, to the point where they make very few mistakes, and they have so many good defenders. And they didn’t even have Robert Williams, probably their best defender, for the first couple of games in this series. The only guy who plays who has not been an above-average defender is Payton Pritchard, and he’s a tough guy, and if people are attacking him too much, they just don’t play him.
“And early on on offense, Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown were holding the ball a lot, going a lot of one-on-one. I don’t think it was that they wouldn’t pass. I know Marcus Smart made that comment early in the year. I just think they were slow decision-makers. They wanted to catch and hold. They also were not running much. They’re still not a big-time running team, but they do capitalize on their defense now and get out in transition. Their pace picked up. Not only in transition, but in terms of how they move the ball. Tatum in particular, I thought, really became a quicker decision-maker. And they were pretty unlucky early. They changed the things they needed to change, which is why they are where they are now.”
Van Gundy marveled at the Game 2 broadcast at how the Celtics’ defense frustrated Nets scoring machine Kevin Durant.
“It’s the best I’ve seen any team defend him,” Van Gundy said. “There’s always five guys just staring at him. When it’s most obvious is when he gets the ball up top. The guy who is guarding him is right into him, and there’s someone on each elbow just waiting for him to move that way. If he does, they’re not faking at him, they’re committing to the ball. So, they’re always making him play in traffic, pretty much no matter where he is on the court.”
While Van Gundy was impressed with how the Celtics defended Durant, he was confused by how easily Kyrie Irving, who scored just 10 points in Game 2, was neutralized.
“He wasn’t even involved,” Van Gundy said. “Down the stretch, he didn’t seem to want the ball at all. And even though Durant was having a tough night, [the Nets] just kept going to Durant, going to Durant, going to Durant. In the fourth quarter especially, Kyrie was not even apart of what they were doing.
“I don’t know what was going on there. He left in the first quarter to go in and get some food because he was fasting. I don’t know if he was low energy or some of the controversy from Game 1 and the fine took something out of him. I thought his effort defensively was fine, it’s not like he was n’t trying on that end, but he was n’t assertive whatsoever on the offensive end coming off that unbelievable Game 1. ”
With Game 3 of Celtics-Nets airing on ESPN, Van Gundy and Anderson were shifted to call Game 4 of the Raptors-76ers series Saturday before shifting back to Celtics-Nets on Monday.
“I like doing different series, getting to do different games,” Van Gundy said. “It’s easier when you stay on one series, that’s for sure, as far as preparation and stuff, and you have a real feel for what’s going on. I like going to different places, but I’ll watch all the games whether I’m there or not.”
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.