BOSTON – This is more than just a rematch.
When the Nets and Celtics met in the first round a season ago, Boston was a wounded animal just trying to survive. Jaylen Brown has had wrist surgery. Rob Williams was a shell of himself because of his turf toe. The Celtics managed to pull off a win as Jayson Tatum absolutely couldn’t miss, but it never felt like a real contest and Boston came out with a whimper.
Almost a year later, the Celtics are not only one of the hottest teams in the game, but they’re also facing the Nets as a full team again. They have someone for every role and they know how to maximize them. Marcus Smart found a home there, while Tatum and Brown turned their incompatibility tale into one of the league’s renowned duos.
This whole trip felt like they were ready to take on a team built around two icons who have been there, been there, and done it again and again in the playoffs. No one knew if the Nets would recover from their lackluster play this season, but it seemed laughable in hindsight once they went into a 17-2 blitz early in the fourth quarter to take control of the game. But that’s when the Celtics made it clear that this wasn’t going to be a rehash of last year’s outclassed series.
“I know we’ve all had playoff experience in the past, but this is the first time this group has been together, a first playoff game against a really good team,” Al Horford said. “The most important thing is calm. We kept staying with him and that’s what we did, we stayed with him and took their shot and were able to stay with him and find a way to finish the game.
In the end, they took Kyrie Irving’s best shot, held Durant at bay and flexed their electric ball movement in the dying seconds of the game to win it 115-114 on a wide-open layup from Jayson Tatum. .
“You can look at a lot of ways,” Nets coach Steve Nash said of where the game was lost before Tatum’s exploits. “There are obviously areas of the game where you want to improve, so take your pick. Proud of the guys. It was the first truly intense playoff experience together. We had a bad start to the second half which cost us, obviously, but other than that I think our group has improved a lot.
It was all about Tatum last year and that was something the Nets could contain. Ime Udoka said Boston’s late strategy was to take the ball out of the hands of an overbearing Irving and have anyone but Kevin Durant beat them. A season ago, Boston had no one the Nets had to fear when they forced the ball out of Tatum’s hands.
“Some of the plays we played for Jayson, we felt like there were smaller guards climbing on him a bit in the perimeter,” Udoka said. “Jaylen has that extra sparkle and physique on his records. When they do that, he can attack.
That’s how Boston made their comeback on a night when it looked like their rise to competition was learning a lesson from seasoned champions.
There were times when it looked like the Nets were going to overwhelm the Celtics and put them to bed, but Boston has a resilience now that Brooklyn hadn’t seen in top form. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart came back into the game early in the fourth quarter as Irving pulled away and Brown began to attack. It didn’t work out at first, as there were several turnovers and misses, but the Celtics were no longer playing on their heels.
But it wasn’t until an Irving 3 with 5:20 left to play gave the Nets a five-point lead that the Celtics found a moment to regain their spark. Udoka called a timeout and found the right message to turn things around.
“We talked about staying in balance, being able to move on,” Horford said. “At that point a team can go two ways, and we have pretty good control of the game in the third and it kind of got away from us. Just give our band a lot of credit because we all understood we had to stick with it. That was the most important thing, stick with it no matter what and keep playing. And that’s what we’ve done.
Tatum hadn’t hit a shot since the end of the third quarter and the offense seemed stalled when Brown didn’t drive in transition. But they found something that worked when Derrick White and Smart started chasing more points and started Boston’s drive-and-kick game.
“I think it’s one of the biggest progressions for our team, just when something goes wrong,” Tatum said. “They run away, we have a few errors in defence. We care. It’s an emotional game. So it’s not going to be a quiet caucus, we have to talk about that. But the main thing is that we resolve it immediately. And we’re all on the same page and we get out of the group and move on to the next room.
Throughout the crisis, it was never a single Celtics player who took control like in the past. While it all flowed through Durant and Irving in isolation, the Celtics had a different point guard every time they took to the floor.
“We’ve moved away from the ‘your turn, my turn’ thing for the most part, and we like to see ourselves succeeding, like increasing those assist numbers,” Udoka said. “Overall, that’s what we’ve become over the past three months.”
Irving and Durant figured out the “your turn, my turn” thing a long time ago. Durant draws doubles so he can swing it to Irving and let one of the greatest scorers of his generation attack against a recovering defense. Even when Boston took away Irving’s first and second options, they would find a third. It is the greatness that they have not been able to overcome in the past. But now they have the depth and chemistry to bring it down while preventing Durant from making Irving’s impact worse. Now Brooklyn must figure out how to unlock Durant to follow Irving.
“Nothing wrong with Kevin Durant. We know who he is,” Irving said. “He was doing all the little things and we know how high his expectations are for himself. So we’re not going to think about it too much. But we absolutely have to look in the mirror as a team and see where we can control the little things, the little details that help us close the game. I feel like we had control of the game and then one last shot beats us up and now we’re sitting here asking about the (fan) hostility (to Boston) and stuff like that.
Durant has learned throughout his career how to handle these moments. He’s scored just under 25 points in consecutive playoff games three times over the past decade. But he’s more than a goalscorer now. He’s a playmaker, a defender, a calming presence who can handle whatever defensive storm comes his way. So unlike last season, he now has to go back to the movie and figure things out. The Celtics are built to keep him guessing and forcing him to continually evolve.
“(I learned) they still sting, even though we know it’s a series,” Durant said. “They sting and you want to override it, but it will be good to watch the game and see where we can improve. We understand this is a series and we have another opportunity to come here and get a W on their floor. We have to try to get past this one.
The Celtics are a new beast, but the Nets showed Sunday that their two stars will always be the predator, not the prey.
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(Photo by Kevin Durant: Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)