A stunning surge in the final minutes left the Brooklyn Nets just short in their season opener as they dropped their 2016-17 debut to the Boston Celtics at TD Garden, 122-117.
It wasn’t nearly that close midway through the fourth quarter, the Celtics up by 23 points with just under eight minutes to go and still leading 118-99 closing in on four minutes remaining. But then Rondae Hollis-Jefferson knocked down a pair of free throws and coach Kenny Atkinson put the youngsters Isaiah Whitehead and Chris McCullough on the floor for their first action of the night.
With Whitehead, McCullough, Joe Harris, Trevor Booker and Bojan Bogdanovic on the floor, the Nets went on to an 11-0 run that brought them within 118-110 on a Bogdanovic layup with 2:10 remaining.
“I was really pleased, especially with those young guys, second group coming in and really fighting,” said Atkinson . “We picked up our pressure and got a few turnovers.”
Avery Bradley finally answered for the Celtics, but Bogdanovic scored again and Trevor Booker swiped a crosscourt inbounds pass and cruised in for a dunk. Bogdanovic drained a top-of-the-key three with 46 seconds to go to bring the Nets within 120-117, the closest they’d been since the opening minutes of the second quarter.
But after a Harris steal, the Nets missed two shots at a game-tying 3-pointer. Isaiah Thomas made two free throws with 11 seconds to go and the Celtics held on for the win.
Bogdanovic led the Nets with 21 points and Justin Hamilton had 19 with 10 rebounds. Jeremy Lin added 18, Harris 16 and Sean Kilpatrick 13 as the Nets had five scorers in double figures. It was a career high for Hamilton, the 7-footer with long-distance range. He and fellow 7-footer Brook Lopez shared the floor for 11 minutes.
“He’s doing what he’s done all preseason,” said Atkinson. “I’m really pleased with how he fits us. He’s a system fit offensively with his 3-point shot. He can roll to the rim too and finish.”
On opening night, with their first-year head coach and 10 new players, the Nets indeed offered a new look.
They spread the floor, whipped the ball around the perimeter, fired up threes — a franchise-record 44 — and took advantage of the wide-open paint to hunt for driving lanes.
But the Celtics have been working that blueprint for a few years now, and their greater experience and continuity showed. Thomas burned the Nets for 25 points with nine assists and the Celtics shot 54 percent from the field.
“There’s a lot to improve obviously, we need to make progress there,” said Atkinson of the defensive performance. “Give them credit. They’re versatile. They drive the ball. But they can also shoot the three. It’s a tough team to defend, but also a team that’s been together for a while.”
Up 71-65 midway through the third, they outscored the Nets 26-16 to the end of the quarter to take a 97-81 lead going into the fourth. When rookie Jaylen Brown cut backdoor for a dunk to cap an 8-0 run in the opening minutes of the final quarter, the Celtics were up 105-83 with 10 minutes to go.
Early on, the Nets looked both sharp offensively and a work in progress. Even with guard Randy Foye out with a hamstring injury, 10 different players took the floor in a high-scoring opening quarter that left Brooklyn trailing 33-31.
The Nets shot 54 percent from the field and made 5-of-8 3-pointers in the first quarter, but the shooting efficiency fell off from there. They finished the night shooting 44 percent overall and 34 percent from behind the arc.
Boston opened up the second quarter on a 13-3 run and took a 13-point lead midway through the period. Hamilton got going with a 3-pointer and tip-in that helped keep the Nets within six at halftime, 64-58.