Boston’s top-rated defense didn’t look the part on Sunday, as Kyrie Irving thrived in a hostile environment. But the Celtics got a stop when it mattered most.
BOSTON – It was over. At least it should have been. With just a few minutes to go in Game 1 of Boston’s first-round series against Brooklyn, the Celtics were on the verge of kicking the game away. A 15-point lead had evaporated. Kyrie Irving, New England’s favorite villain, got hot. Kevin Durant made a couple of shots, too. Boston’s crunch-time offense, a weakness in an otherwise stellar second half of the season, looked ragged.
Those ‘who wants to play the Nets’ narratives? The digital ink was spilling.
And then … wait, what happened?
Here’s how it played out: A shade under 40 seconds to play and the Nets up one, Brooklyn had the ball and was looking for the dagger. They looked to Irving, who had 39 points in his return to Boston. He was bottled up. They got the ball to Durant, the Nets’ impossibly long superstar who was matched up with Jayson Tatum, the Celtics’ equally long star. Tatum had already blocked one of Durant’s shots earlier. As the shot clock wound down, Tatum stayed in Durant’s chest, forcing the ex-MVP into a contested 30-footer.
Boston rebounded. Ime Udoka declined to call a timeout. “I tell the guys all the time,” said Udoka. “If we have an advantageous position, I won’t call a timeout.” Jaylen Brown collected an outlet and drove baseline. Nothing. Brown swung it across the court to Smart. Smart, 4-for-9 from three-point range, got two Nets defenders to bite on a pump fake. Driving, Smart spotted Tatum. “Last second,” Smart said. He zipped a pass to Tatum, who in one motion spun and flipped the ball in just as the clock expired.
“Hell of a play from Tatum,” said Nets guard Goran Dragic.
“I just went to get the rebound and [Smart] found me,” Tatum said. “And it was just a layup. Just a layup.”
What a finish. Officially, Nets-Celtics is a 2-7 matchup. But rarely has a No. 7 seed been this dangerous. Brooklyn won 44 games and needed a win over Cleveland in a play-in to get into the playoffs, but come on—this was Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Nets aren’t a threat to win a couple of games. They are a threat to win a championship.
At times, they looked like it Sunday. Irving was electric. It’s been three years since Irving left Boston for Brooklyn as a free agent. Inside TD Garden on Sunday, it felt like three minutes. Irving was booed during introductions. He was booed whenever he touched the ball. He engaged with fans repeatedly. In between one possession, Irving put his hands behind his head and raised both middle fingers (big fine coming for that). After knocking down a jumper in the fourth quarter, Irving appeared to offer another (ditto). As he made his way to the locker room at halftime, cell phones caught Irving directing some colorful language at a heckler in the hallway.
“It’s the energy they have for me,” Irving said. “I’m going to have the same energy for them.”
The hate didn’t bother Irving. “I don’t know if there’s any atmosphere that’ll really rattle him,” Steve Nash said. It fueled him, or as he said after the game, he “embraced” the “dark side.”
Boston’s perimeter defense is elite. Smart is a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year. Brown and Derrick White are excellent, too. Yet there was Irving, who didn’t make a field goal until early in the second quarter, slicing to the rim to close the first half and raining threes on Boston’s defense in the second.
“Tonight, the shot-making, just controlling the game for us, was incredible,” Durant said. “That’s what we’re going to need going forward. No matter where he’s at, I think he’s the same player.”
Indeed. If not for the Celtics’ late-game heroics, Irving would have been the story.
And he may still be. Boston’s top-rated defense didn’t look like it on Sunday. The Nets connected on 53.8% of their shots. They knocked down 45.8% of their threes. The Game 1 loss was crushing but Brooklyn will head into Game 2 on Wednesday knowing they were a fraction of a second away from winning Game 1 with Durant (23 points on 9-for-24 shooting) playing below his usual level. “They did a good job of forcing me away and helping in the paint,” Durant said. “I just got to be more fundamental with my moves.”
Celtics-Nets was billed coming in as perhaps the most competitive first-round series. It was predicted by many to be its most entertaining. Game 1 lived up to expectations. For both teams now, it’s on to Game 2.