BOSTON — Silence descended upon Boston’s huddle amidst a deafening crowd at TD Garden on Sunday once Brooklyn’s furious 15-2 run morphed an 11-point lead into a 2-point deficit.
Jaylen Brown felt the Celtics’ grip on Game 1 loosening.
So, he spoke up with 7:46 left to play during a timeout.
“I said to everybody: ‘This is the moment where our faith needs to be the strongest,’ ” Brown recalled after Tuesday’s practice at the Auerbach Center. “’We’re gonna find a way to win this game. We’re gonna find a way to get our offense going. This ain’t the time to fold to adversity. It’s time to turn it up a notch.’”
Boston clings to that mentality headed into Wednesday’s Game 2 (7 ET, TNT) of this best-of-seven series in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs at TD Garden. The Celtics know it’s unlikely Kevin Durant repeats his 27.3% shooting performance from Game 1, while understanding Kyrie Irving could easily top his 39-point outburst from the opener.
Anticipated adjustments only heighten the drama. Celtics coach Ime Udoka admits he could hold a potential edge in that department, having spent 2020-21 on Steve Nash’s staff in Brooklyn, where he worked closely with Durant and Irving.
“Durant and Irving are who they are. I know their mentality and how they approach the game,” Udoka said. “So, there [are] some benefits as far as me being with them [last season], seeing how they kind of tick, and how they’ve been guarded in the past. As far as Steve and what they’re gonna do, like I said, it was a close game. So, they may look at it like ‘[if] a few shots go down [and] Durant plays better, we don’t need to do a whole lot.’ But we’re anticipating a few things. So, there [are] benefits with the familiarity for sure.”
Physicality helps, too. Udoka identified that as one of the positive areas the Celtics need to reemphasize in Game 2 along with getting out in transition and offensive rebounding. Boston scored 25 points in transition in Game 1, connecting on 11 of 18 attempts for 1.19 points per possession in that facet of the game. On the offensive glass, the Celtics crushed the Nets 14-5 with an 18-11 edge in second-chance points and a total rebounding advantage of 43-29 nearly a week after Brooklyn guard-forward Bruce Brown seemed to rejoice in the absence of injured big man Robert Williams III, saying, “We can attack Al Horford and [Daniel] Theis.”
Horford issued his response through action on the floor, becoming just the 13th player in NBA history to log a 20-point, 15-rebound game in a playoff game at the age of 35.
Then, there’s the matter of slowing down Durant and Irving. The Celtics experienced success against the former by throwing a variety of defenders his way to keep him uncomfortable and off-balance. Kia Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart was among those to take turns guarding Durant — a group that included Brown, Horford, Jayson Tatum and Grant Williams — and they limited the Nets forward in the first half to 2-of-10 shooting for seven points. Durant finished with 24 points, his lowest scoring output in the playoffs since Game 5 of the first round last season, a contest that eliminated Boston from the postseason.
Interestingly, Udoka matched up as a player against Durant on multiple occasions over his last four seasons in the league. The first matchup took place in 2007, when the Boston coach was a 30-year-old vet facing off against a 20-year-old rookie. Back then, Udoka flexed physicality against the forward, who has since “adjusted and grown and seen everything,” the coach said.
Still, a combination of physicality and diverse looks help against Durant.
“We have to do a phenomenal job of staying into him because everything has to be tough, not only just him walking up and down the court, but him just trying to get a cup of water on the sideline,” Williams said. “If you can be in his face someway, somehow, you’ve got to take him off his rhythm, take him out of his game. We all know Kevin Durant. We know he’s going to come out being aggressive in Game 2.”
The same goes for Irving, who ignited the team’s 15-2 run in the fourth quarter of Game 1 with back-to-back 3-pointers, followed by a driving finger roll that cut Boston’s lead to one. Continuous booing from the raucous crowd at TD Garden never negatively affected Irving’s play, and he seemed to relish in all the sparring.
“NBA crowds in the playoffs tend to try to pick at players, especially ones that played for their team,” Durant said Tuesday when discussing Irving. “We all understand that stuff, and Kyrie’s reaction was his reaction. I feel him, exactly what he said [after the game]. The same energy they’re giving off to him, he’s going to give it right back, and he played that way.”
The Celtics understand it’s impossible to completely stop both Durant and Irving. They just want to make everything difficult.
So, Williams’ description of how to defend Irving applies to Durant, too.
“It’s about understanding that he’s gonna make tough shots. You can’t complain about those,” Williams explained. “We can’t give him the easy ones that allow him to now feel comfortable and confident enough to know that the tough shots are even easier and more likely to go in.”
Boston also made sure to pore over how they surrendered leads of 15 and 11 points in Game 1, identifying a lack of ball movement on offense as a culprit, while pointing out how Brooklyn’s adjustments to load up on leading scorer Tatum affected spacing. Udoka said Boston plans to combat the latter with more off-ball movement and actions the club has achieved success with throughout this season.
When the teams met last year in the playoffs, they occupied spots opposite of where they currently sit. The Celtics entered the postseason as the seventh seed, while Brooklyn — with Udoka on the staff and an extra All-Star at guard in James Harden — held the No. 2 spot. The Nets eliminated Boston in just five games, as Durant, Irving and Harden combined for 67.5% of the team’s total points in the closer.
Boston doesn’t view Brooklyn as any less dangerous without Harden in the mix, and after a nail-biting finish to Game 1, the Celtics expect an even more spirited Nets effort Wednesday at TD Garden.
“We want to be physical. That’s part of our identity,” Udoka said. “Durant’s gonna come out more aggressive. Irving got away from us a little bit [in Game 1], and we feel like we can defend him better. We know who they are as far as their guys. You start to anticipate what you think they may do. But if they don’t do them, we know our basic coverages, and then we have our adjustments. We’ll be prepared for a few different looks, a few different things that they could do, and what they did well against us, how to attack some of that.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.