Sunday marked the first time the Nets had faced Boston since last season’s humbling first-round playoff sweep. Call it a test, or a measuring stick to see how far they’ve come in the seven months since.
Brooklyn was found wanting against the best team in the league, beaten 103-92 before a sellout crowd of 18,043 at Barclays Center.
“Yeah, No. 1 offense in the league right now. Best team right now in the league. It’s really a great test to see how disciplined you are on each possession,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “They offer a lot of challenges. Experienced group. Can really score the ball in multiple ways and different individuals who can do it. Great challenge for the whole group to be locked in from start to finish.”
Since that April playoff debacle, it’s likely no two NBA teams have gone through more tumult and turbulence.
Boston has lost center Robert Williams III to injury and suspended coach Ime Udoka for the season for sexual impropriety. And — after Kevin Durant’s trade request and coach Steve Nash’s firing — the Nets flirted with hiring Udoka before settling on Vaughn. That doesn’t even get into Kyrie Irving’s recent suspension. Got all that?
“I think you, by evidence, were able to see how good [Jayson] Tatum, [Jaylen] Brown, [Marcus] Smart, [Al] Horford, Williams, that whole group that’s kind of been together for a while,” Vaughn said. “How, continuity, there’s something to that. Stability, there’s something to that as well. I think we have a tremendous amount of respect for what they’ve done because they were able to sweep us. Hopefully that works to our favor and we’re ready to play.”
The Nets (13-12) were ready — just not quite good enough.
The Celtics appear to have weathered the chaos better, a league-leading 19-5.
Against a Boston team on pace for the best offensive rating in history, the Nets actually played stout defense and held the Celtics largely in check. But not Jaylen Brown.
The Nets didn’t have injured Ben Simmons to help on Brown, and the Celtics star was the best player on the floor with a game-high 34 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
The Celtics got 29 points from Jayson Tatum. And even without reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart to put on Irving, Boston still slowed the Nets point guard to a quiet 18 points on 7-for-21 shooting.
Kevin Durant — who had been doubled and smothered by Boston in that first-round series — poured in a team-high 31 points, but committed eight turnovers.
The Nets — who came on riding a league-best four-game winning streak — ran out to a quick 11-2 lead.
But after some defensive failures to close out against the Celtics, they allowed 14 unanswered points to fall behind by five.
Joe Harris knotted the game at 48-all with a 3-pointer off a Royce O’Neale feed with 4:09 left in the first half. But after having largely played an exceptionally clean first half against a Boston defense getting back to their old stifling ways, the Nets got sloppy at the wrong time.
Brooklyn shot 1-for-5 and committed three of their five first-half turnovers in the final four minutes. They conceded a 14-2 blitz to go into the locker room trailing by 12.
They never got closer than four in the third, and two in the fourth.
Durant pulled the Nets within 78-74 on a 3-pointer off an O’Neale feed. He followed by finding Harris on a cutting layup to make it 78-76 with 7:22 to play. But the Nets could never quite get over the hump and ran out of gas down the stretch.