The Boston Celtics have put the league on notice early this season. Boston stood atop the league at 18-5 heading into Sunday’s matchup with the streaking Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn came into the game winners of 7 of their last 9 and four straight. However, with the majority of those wins coming against lesser competition, the matchup with Boston had the feel of a litmus test for the new-look Nets. And the Celtics showed Brooklyn still has a ways to go before they can be viewed as contenders.
Boston’s defense completely overwhelmed Brooklyn on their way to a 103-92 win. The Nets shot 34 of 84 (40.5 percent) and scored just 42 second-half points in the loss. The 92 points were a season-low for Brooklyn.
The Nets would open the game on an 11-2 run, but a series of missed transition opportunities and turnovers allowed Boston to answer with a 14-0 run. From that point on, Brooklyn would find themselves desperately searching for offense from anyone outside of Kevin Durant, who scored 31 points on 13 of 24 shooting.
Similar to games 2-4 of Boston’s first-round sweep of Brooklyn in last year’s playoffs, Kyrie Irving struggled to create high-percentage looks against the versatile defense. The guard scored 18 points on 7 of 21 shooting with the Celtics squeezing driving lanes and forcing Irving into difficult mid-range looks.
“It’s the same difference principles from what I see,” Irving said when asked if he saw any difference from the first-round series. “They sell out on our drives and make us pass. So, crowding the paint.”
Joe Harris was Brooklyn’s only semblance of offense outside of Durant and Irving. The sharpshooter continued his hot streak from three, scoring 13 points on 3 of 5 from deep. Harris is 12 of 18 from three in his last three games following an extended shooting slump.
Royce O’Neale struggled in a big way with Boston keying on Brooklyn’s stars, shooting 2 of 12 from the field and 2 of 8 from three. To make matters worse, the Nets got just eight non-garbage time points from their bench with four apiece from Cam Thomas and T.J. Warren. Thomas was benched for the second half following poor shot selection in his early minutes.
Seth Curry went scoreless Sunday. The guard has scored just nine total points in his last four games after a 29-point performance in a win over Portland.
Durant carried the sluggish Nets offense with 25 points through the first three quarters. After the former MVP scored 12 of Brooklyn’s 19 third-quarter points, Boston opted to double Durant down the stretch, forcing the ball out of his hands and exposing the supporting cast. O’Neale and Joe Harris shot 1 of 6 while appearing noticeably uncomfortable shooting off the Celtics’ near-perfect rotations.
“If you’re gonna send a second guy at our best player then we have to make you pay for it,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said of his team’s struggles down the stretch. “Once we swing, swing that thing and it gets to the second guy, you have to shoot it. They were able to close out on more than a couple occasions where they double-teamed and were still able to close out on our shooters. Can’t allow that to happen.”
Despite his efficient shooting, the Celtics forced Durant into four of his eight turnovers in the 4th quarter. The following play is a good summation of Brooklyn’s offensive struggles with Royce O’Neale hesitant to take an open corner three. Durant then gets the ball back and looks O’Neale off before trying to force to Irving, leading to a turnover. Brooklyn gets the ball back but commits another careless turnover in the backcourt to give Boston a layup.
On another play in the 2nd quarter, O’Neale doesn’t think about taking a wide-open three, instead giving the ball back to Durant for a contested shot.
With their supporting cast hesitant and struggling to create for themselves, the Nets attempted just 26 threes for the game, well short of their season average of 32.0, which ranks 19th in the league. Meanwhile, Boston shot 15 of 38 (39.5 percent) from three, something Durant emphasized postgame.
“The three-point line,” Durant said when asked about the difference in the loss. “I look down across the board and we’re pretty much even in everything. They made one more shot than us, but six more threes.”
“It’s a make-or-miss league. It’s about offense in this league,” he continued.
The disappearing act from the Nets’ supporting cast was poorly timed given Brooklyn’s high-level defensive performance. Boston’s 120.7 offensive rating this season is the best in NBA history. Despite this, Vaughn’s squad held the Celtics to 35 of 81 (43.2 percent shooting) and a season-low 13 third-quarter points.
Brooklyn’s carelessness with the basketball, something Vaughn has emphasized as an area of focus in recent weeks, acted as a life raft for the struggling Celtics offense. The Nets committed 14 turnovers leading to 26 fastbreak points.
Jaylen Brown led the way for Boston with 34 points on 10 of 20 shooting. Brown shot 5 of 5 from three in the first quarter to give his team a lead from which they would never look back.
“That’s who he is. That’s the kind of player he’s been this season,” Durant said of Brown’s performance. “Knocking down tough shots, being a scorer for them at all three levels. Got to give him credit.”
Jayson Tatum struggled early before finishing with 29 points on 10 of 19 shooting.
The road in the Eastern Conference appears to run through Boston a quarter of the way through the season. And while Brooklyn was missing Ben Simmons and Yuta Watanabe, the difference in length, athleticism, and three-point shooting Sunday point to an obvious need for upgrades along the supporting cast.
Brooklyn will look to get back on track as they close out a seven-game homestand against Charlotte and Atlanta before hitting the road this weekend.