This time last year, the roles were reversed.

The Nets finished the 2020-21 regular season with the No. 2 seed, while the Boston Celtics defeated the Washington Wizards in the first game of the play-in tournament to secure the East’s No. 7 spot.

The Nets, with a roster headlined by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, made quick work of an outmatched Celtics team. Brooklyn won the series, 4-1, only surrendering the first game on Boston’s home court.

But things have changed since that fateful series. Boston’s mastermind Brad Stevens moved into a front office role and poached Nets’ lead assistant coach Ime Udoka. Udoka helped transform the Celtics into the league’s top defensive team. He unlocked Marcus Smart as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate and developed Jayson Tatum’s playmaking and on-court leadership skills. Udoka has taken a fringe playoff contender and legitimized them.

And, for the Nets, now the shoe is on the other foot.

“They’ve got six or seven new players [since last year’s playoff series],” Durant said in the days leading up to Sunday’s Game 1. “I’m not even thinking about last season. One of our coaches is their coach now.”

This time around, it’s the Nets who endured the league’s play-in tournament, discarding the Cleveland Cavaliers to cement their standing as the East’s seventh seed.

It’s the Nets who face the unenviable task of playing more games in Boston than in Brooklyn, more games in front of the league’s most hostile playoff environment, with fans who reserve their vitriol for Irving, who once decreed his love for Boston only to leave for Brooklyn.

It’s the Nets who drew the league’s No. 1 defense, and the league’s best team overall in the final 15 games of the season, as their first-round playoff matchup.

And it’s the Nets who suddenly find themselves as underdogs — or do they? — in yet another championship-or-bust season derailed by factors well outside their control.

“I think that we do [identify as underdogs], and we don’t,” head coach Steve Nash said after Nets practice Saturday. “If we were together for the year, we wouldn’t be seventh, and so we wouldn’t be an underdog.”

The Nets surely don’t feel like underdogs. They were the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference with a 27-15 record before a Jan. 15 MCL sprain sidelined Durant a month and a half, sending the Nets on an 11-game losing streak.

By the time Durant returned, the Nets were in play-in territory, struggling to keep the team from finishing the season in 10th place.

That’s the reality of Brooklyn’s season: When healthy, when whole, they’ve been virtually unbeatable. They haven’t been whole, however, all season.

Not with Irving (unvaccinated) ineligible to play until Jan. 5 and ineligible to play at home until March 27. Not with Harden out of shape, unmotivated and eventually disgruntled enough to force his way to Philly at the trade deadline. Not with Joe Harris needing ankle surgery a month and change into the regular season. And, of course, not without Durant, who may have deserved more MVP consideration solely based on the Nets’ tailspin once the injury put him on ice.

“I feel like our season was derailed by my injury,” Durant said on April 4. “I’m not looking at it like we’re just not a good basketball team. There wasn’t a lot of continuity with me and Kyrie out of the lineup. That’s just what it is. When we’re all on the floor together, I like what we’ve got.”

These days, Tatum is beginning to look like he belongs in the MVP conversation. In Year 5, Tatum is averaging 27 points, eight rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. In their March 6 meeting — a game the Nets started the same players they’ll likely start the entirety of this first-round series — Tatum scored 54 points, and all four other Celtics starters hit double figures.

Durant scored 37 but only got 19 from Irving — in his first game at Boston’s TD Garden all season. The Celtics hung on to win by six.

“I know their game,” Udoka said before tipoff that night. “It’s not about their sets, offensively. It’s about who they are. They’re not running anything complicated. It’s get them (Durant and Irving) the ball, and let them do what they do.”

That 54-point outburst is at the core of the Nets’ game planning for Boston. Do they allow Tatum to go nuclear while trying to neutralize those around him? Or do they force Jaylen Brown, Smart, Derrick White and company to play above their means while attempting to take Tatum completely out of the game?

“That’s the crux of it,” Nash said. ”What would you rather stomach? Do you rather give Jayson more opportunity versus over committing to him and allowing other guys to have quote unquote easier action?”

What would Nash rather stomach?

“Oh,” he said with a giant smile. “That’s not for me to discuss.”

Neither is Ben Simmons, the star point forward acquired in the Harden deal who could be available to play in the first round — depending on whose words you believe.

While newsbreakers Adrian Wojnarowski, Shams Charania and Brian Windhorst have each reported increased optimism around Simmons making his debut in-between Games 4 and 6 of the first round, Nash has remained tight-lipped about the progress Simmons has made. Nash on Friday, for example, said Simmons “hasn’t done anything yet” practice-wise, only for Wojnarowski to report on ESPN Saturday morning that Simmons has been running and shooting for over a week.

“I think clearly he’s improving,” Nash told reporters after practice on Saturday, “but I have no idea if he’s getting close to play or not.”

Even if he can play by Game 4, Simmons won’t be 100%, he won’t be in game shape, and he won’t have any basketball under his belt after sitting the front half of the season in Philadelphia, then suffering a herniated disk during his ramp-up in Brooklyn.

Simmons’ status is a microcosm for why the Nets may be underdogs, even if they have two of the three best players on the floor at all times. They ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak — five if you include the play-in — and winners of 12 of their last 17 games, but the Celtics ended their regular season with metrics that suggest they’re the best team in all of basketball.

The Celtics could have ducked the Nets by resting their starters in the regular-season finale. While the Bucks took that route, Boston pummeled the Memphis Grizzlies by 29 to cement a first-round matchup with a legitimate championship contender.

So does the No. 7 seed make the Nets underdogs, or is their seeding a facade? Are they really a No. 1 or 2 seed playing against a team that wouldn’t be seeded as high had it not been for Brooklyn’s midseason meltdown?

“Now that we are together I feel like we have an ability to beat people for sure,” Nash said. “But the continuity is that piece and we just haven’t had a lot of time together. So trying to overcome that in a short period of time is our challenge.”


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