BOSTON — Marcus Smart’s custom team-inspired DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) boxing robe fit the occasion nearly perfectly Wednesday, after Boston rocked Brooklyn with a 114-107 haymaker in Game 2 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The victory pushed the Celtics to a 2-0 series lead, while likely serving as a potential knockout blow to the Nets’ season.
“Two or three guys hitting me wherever I go,” Kevin Durant said.
It’s been that way for the superstar every night on the floor at TD Garden.
Yes, it’s just two games. The Nets could rally back and steal away this series.
History says that’s unlikely. So, we’ll get into that and more in our five takeaways from yet another Boston masterclass in total teamwork ahead of Saturday’s Game 3 (7:30 ET, ESPN) at Barclays Center:
1. Another total team effort
We chronicled the incredible teamwork Boston displayed after Game 1, but the Celtics simply built on that in Game 2 by slowly plugging away at a 17-point deficit that eventually turned into a 12-point lead.
Jayson Tatum called the performance an “ugly” game, but you can’t help but marvel at the beauty of Boston’s resilience. Down 17 with just 1:45 remaining in the first half, the Celtics reeled off a 7-0 run on 3-pointers from Al Horford and Tatum, who rocked the rim in between those plays on a transition dunk off a steal from Daniel Theis. That spurt sent the Celtics into intermission trailing by 10.
Interestingly, Brooklyn coach Steve Nash spoke extensively to the team in the locker room at halftime about raising its intensity for the second half. Nash asked for “more pop” according to Nets point guard Kyrie Irving.
Then in the fourth quarter with 7:49 left, Payton Prichard drilled a step-back jumper off a Tatum assist that gave Boston its first lead of the contest. Jaylen Brown capped the game-changing 13-2 run — which started with 44.9 seconds left in the third quarter — with a driving bucket just 45 seconds later. Boston’s leading scorer (22 points) on a night that Tatum struggled (19 points, 5-16 FGs), Brown scored 10 points during Boston’s run.
Both Durant and Irving spoke glowingly of Boston’s teamwork, which they see as a product of the team being together for so long while enduring plenty of tough postseason battles.
All but one of the eight Celtics logging minutes (Derrick White) scored at least 10 points.
2. Are the Nets done?
It certainly looks that way after another rough night from Durant (27 points, 4-17 FGs, game-high 6 TOs) and a subpar performance from Irving (10 points, 4-13 FGs) — Wednesday marked the first time in 55 games as teammates that both Durant and Irving shot worse than 33% from the field.
Nets guard-forward Bruce Brown spoke afterward about the need for the supporting cast to do more to help the Nets’ superstars by cutting to the basket, getting off the wing, and being more prepared to shoot the ball when it comes their way. But Brooklyn might be entering a situation of too little too late.
Historically, the Nets are 0-12 all-time when they fall behind 2-0 in a playoff series, while the Celtics own a record of 49-2 when they go up 2-0. Boston’s win marked the fourth time in the last five seasons it seized victories in the first two games of the opening round.
The Celtics have now defeated Brooklyn five times in a row, and appear to have mastered the formula for shutting down a Nets team that seems too reliant on Durant and Irving isolations for offense. Once Brooklyn squandered a 17-point lead, you could see Boston was finally starting to wear down Durant and Irving.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka said the game plan was to make Durant work all night on both ends of the floor while keeping bodies on him.
The last time the Nets lost a playoff game after leading by 17 points or more was May 25, 2002 in the Eastern Conference finals right here at TD Garden.
The series shifts to Barclays Center on Saturday, but that likely doesn’t inspire much confidence, considering Brooklyn finished with a 20-21 regular-season record at home.
3. KD’s shooting woes continue
Going back to the beginning of the 2019 NBA Playoffs, Durant has averaged 37.1 points in games coming off a loss (assuming you omit Game 5 of The 2019 Finals, when Durant suffered a ruptured Achilles after scoring 11 points against Toronto.)
So, after Durant shot 9-for-24 in the series opener against Boston, you just knew a bounce-back game was in the cards.
Durant fooled us early when he shot out the gate to rack up 15 points in the opening quarter on 4-for-7 shooting. In the second half, Durant scored 12 points — all from the free-throw line — while missing all 10 of his shots; that’s the most attempts without a single make in any half of his entire career. Regular season and postseason, folks.
In this series, Durant has scored a total of 50 points (13-for-41 on FGs, 2-for-7 on 3-pointers) with eight assists and 12 turnovers. Durant’s 32% over these last two appearances registers as his fifth-worst field goal percentage over any two-game postseason span.
4. Tatum making plays
Tatum didn’t shoot the ball particularly well in Game 2 after his 31-point effort in Game 1, a showing that included the game-winning buzzer-beater. But the 24-year-old has a knack for making timely plays. Tatum showed that after a rough 0-for-5 start, which tied for his most misses without a make in any quarter of his postseason career. Brooklyn’s Brown deserves some of the credit for that, as Tatum shot 0-for-4 with the Nets’ forward serving as the primary defender.
Tatum still managed to score 12 of his 19 points in the second half. He’s also dished 18 dimes so far in the playoffs, which are the most in any two-game span of Tatum’s five-year career.
5. Simmons on the mend
Both Nash and Udoka remained vague regarding the rehabilitation situations of Nets guard Ben Simmons and Celtics big man Robert Williams III. Still, the coaches expressed optimism about the progress of both players up to this point.
We’ll know for sure soon enough whether Boston and Brooklyn can expect reinforcements at some point during this opening round.
We’ll start with Simmons, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since last May and continues the process of rehabbing a herniated disk in his back. Cleared for contact on Monday, Simmons took part in a full-contact workout Wednesday morning, according to Nash, who added the team will check in with the injured guard Thursday to see how he feels. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that Simmons’ rapid progress has made Monday’s Game 4 a realistic target for the guard to make his Nets debut.
When asked about the report, Nash said, “That’s news to me.” He pointed out the team hasn’t “penciled in anything or made any conclusions yet. I think [Ben] has got a long way to go before he feels ready to play.”
If Simmons feels healthy enough to return sometime during this series, he’d likely make an immediate impact for the Nets as a defender and playmaker alongside Durant and Irving, while providing some lineup flexibility.
Williams, meanwhile, continues to recover from a March 27 meniscus tear, and has advanced to the stage of participating in 3-on-3 work at practice. Udoka has maintained that Boston will continue to prepare as if Williams will remain out the entire series.
It’s worth noting the original timeframe for Williams’ recovery was four to six weeks. Udoka said there’s some risk of swelling in Williams’ knee during the rehab process, and added the center needs to manage “a little bit of pain tolerance” as the workload ramps up. Udoka said Williams is doing a little more every day. His return would stiffen an already stifling Boston defense, as Williams is a strong candidate for the 2022 NBA All-Defensive Team.
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