Given that tonight’s contest between the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets was the second night of a back-to-back for the former, I figured the Nets had more of a chance than they might otherwise. Not for the first time, I underestimated Brooklyn, because they put Boston to work tonight and led more often than not. The ultimate result was good for our heroes, but you can bet Brad Stevens will showcase bad plays from this game in film sessions soon.
THE GAME FLOW
Brooklyn’s “to hell with it; we can’t tank” mentality paid subtle dividends over the past few years, but they were often hard to see. Now they’re quite apparent, under new coach Kenny Atkinson, and the Nets play a style that blends floor-spreading plays with a hardass intensity. When their talent really matures and they attract some more reasonable roleplayers, they’ll be a problem. Book it.
They were a problem early in this game, too, just as they were in the first meeting between these two squads. Between veteran DeMarre Carroll and burgeoning frontcourt bruiser Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn hit with early rabbit-punch scores that caught the Cs off guard. The Nets, for all their undeniable and sizable flaws, have an knack for second-chance points due to their top-5-in-the-league rebounding (when they aren’t popping off for threes, as they frequently do), which was a pain in the ass for our heroes. For the Celtics, their biggest sign of life in Q1 was a ferocious blow-by dunk that Jaylen Brown hit Quincy Acy with. (Acy might have nightmares about that one later.)
Brown’s free-throw shooting woes aren’t news, but they were immediately—and problematically—apparent in this game, as he went 0-4 on them before the first frame ended. This, along with Brooklyn’s unselfish offensive effort, fueled an 8-0 Nets run and the quarter ended with the Celtics down 22-16.
In the next quarter, the Nets started betraying themselves through turnovers (a common Celtics mistake that the squad adroitly avoided for a lot of the first half), but not enough to lose significant ground. Bench-mobbers Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin all contributed either points or hustle plays that kept the Cs very much in the game, so the reserves are still pluses, but no starters except for Kyrie Irving and Aron Baynes contributed much on the offensive end during the first half: Jayson Tatum was scoreless but for a triple (4 blocks, though), and Marcus Morris, in for the resting Al Horford, relapsed into chuck-tastic bad habits. Brooklyn took the opportunity of a 4-minute Boston scoring drought and surged ahead to another run, which held until the half’s final minute. In fairness, the entire team’s shooting was atrocious in this half until a few buckets before the buzzer, leading to a 41-39 deficit.
Kyrie came out of the locker room wanting to score and couldn’t get going for about half of the third quarter. Yet while no specific Boston player came to dominate in his stead, the team as a whole stepped up their efforts, and as we’ve seen so many times in the Brad Stevens era, this roster often specializes in eclipsing the sum of whatever their component parts are. Driving harder at the basket than previous quarters and moving the ball in ways the Nets couldn’t keep up with, the Celtics blitzed their way into a 15-2 run that handed the team its first lead.
This helped get Kyrie popping off more like his usual stuff. Meanwhile, Smart, Theis and Tatum put in excellent defensive work. Theis in particular stepped up when Aron Baynes got into foul trouble through his bull-in-a-china-shop mentality, not returning till the 4th. Despite some foolishness between the Nets’ Acy and Theis (the source of which I was never really clear on, for either side), the rest of the quarter passed without any real problems for Boston, who held their lead 64-61 when it ended.
For the final quarter, Atkinson decided to let new Nets acquisition Jahlil Okafor get some tick, with surprisingly successful results—until now, Okafor’s Nets points have been garbage-time work in blowouts or vs. bad teams. Between him, the always-underrated Spencer Dinwiddie and the always-shooting Allen Crabbe, Brooklyn retook the lead. It’s a cliched word, to be sure, but “grit” is applicable to every Nets player, from Carroll and Dinwiddie to Tyler Zeller and rookie center Jarrett Allen. They do not go away unless they’re incalculably blown out.
They didn’t go away when Boston swarmed back thanks to the work of Kyrie, Tatum and Smart, after which the teams generally traded leads back and forth. And they didn’t go away when Tatum got clutch buckets on consecutive plays: one a rim-rattling throwdown, the other a graceful corner trey from an assist and offensive board wrangled wildly by Kyrie. (You heard me.) Dudes virtually unknown to many NBA fans, like Joe Harris, kept the Nets from folding—though they received plenty of assistance from Celtics performances that, final result notwithstanding, were mostly less than great.
About that result: Tatum’s triple ended up functioning as the dagger, but it didn’t look that way in the moment. Harris and Dinwiddie got reasonable shots that luckily didn’t go in, and Brooklyn’s final possession seemed to last forever, with the ball bouncing around in the post between dudes in a mad scrum under the basket. Yet none of the efforts went in and Boston walked away with a grimy 87-85 win.
HOT ISH: Reserve guards showing hustle (Smart, of course, but also Shane Larkin); Tatum putting in a 14-6-0-3-6 (6!!!!) stat line only matched by another rookie in the last 25 years by Kevin Garnett; low turnovers.
NOT ISH: Honestly? Almost everything else. The Nets drastically out-rebounded the Cs, kept them from moving the ball well more often than not, and forced them into bad shots for much of the game.
The dagger (including Kyrie’s facilitation before the shot):
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 7, 2018
Theis and Jaylen turning defense into offense:
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 6, 2018