Facing the hottest team in the NBA was going to be an uphill climb for the Nets under the best circumstances. But doing it without their two point guards — and arguably two best players — proved too much to handle.
With D’Angelo Russell out indefinitely with a knee injury and Jeremy Lin already sidelined for the season, also with a knee injury, the Nets were game, but woefully shorthanded. And all it took was one five-minute span of dysfunction against the scalding-hot Celtics to cost them in a tightly contested 109-102 affair.
Hearing Boston fans take over among the sellout crowd of 17,732 at Barclays Center was just salt in the Nets’ various wounds, and listening to them serenade New Jersey-bred Celtics star Kyrie Irving with chants of “MVP!” was an added insult. But to be fair, Irving looked the part, dominating while wearing a clear mask in his return from a facial fracture and then giving his shoes to some troops seated courtside.
“The guys competed. We just have to do it for longer stretches. The third quarter really got us,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, whose team briefly got up in isolation ball before promptly giving up a game-turning 19-2 run. “Really it was our offense. We turned the ball over four times, [went] 8-for-23 from the field, so credit them. They turned up their defense, and we couldn’t handle it. We didn’t handle it.”
It will chafe the Nets to have showed a host of positives Tuesday — from selfless ball movement to tenacious defense — but still have lost seven of their past nine.
After opening the season with two losses, Boston won its 13th straight behind Irving, the West Orange product who had a game-high 25 points.
Spencer Dinwiddie acquitted himself well. He scored 12 points, tied a career high with 11 assists and had just one turnover. He orchestrated an offense that had 27 assists, just 13 turnovers and put six in double-figures, led by Joe Harris (career-high-tying 19 points). But a five-minute span when they got away from that cost the Nets.
“When you play against good teams — great teams, in fact — you can’t just have little strings here and there. You have to have the complete game. That’s what we were lacking,” Harris said. “We had some good stretches, but we didn’t play a complete game we needed to in order to win.
“A lot of times bad shots on offense can make it really tough on your defense. That was what happened to us. When we don’t play together and we don’t play with the pass, a lot of times we take difficult shots.… A lot of times that’s similar to a turnover, and they were able to get offense off of tough shots that we were taking.”
The Nets needed a perfect game against Boston, led by Irving, Marcus Morris (21 points, 10 boards) and Al Horford (17 points, 11 boards).
Dinwiddie’s calm controlled floor leadership — and his driving layup — gave the Nets a 65-61 lead with 6:37 left in the third. But Brooklyn allowed that 19-2 run, including 11 straight Celtic points.
Horford had seven points in that 11-0 spurt, his jumper putting Boston ahead 72-65. By the time Jaylen Brown’s free throws pushed the run to 19-2, the Nets had shot 1-of-7 from the floor, committed four turnovers and missed three straight free throws.
Oh, and they had fallen into an 80-67 hole with 56.5 seconds left in the third.
The Nets didn’t fold, mounting a 14-2 run to try and rally. An acrobatic layup by Caris LeVert (15 points) got them within a point at 82-81 early in the fourth. But the Celtics slammed the door shut, reeling off 10 consecutive points to pad their lead to 11 halfway through the quarter and put the game on ice.
The Nets never got closer than four, at 95-91, the rest of the evening.
“They’re a good defensive team. Coach stressed we had to play together,” LeVert said. “We did for most of the night, but sometimes we got caught up in iso ball and it hurt us.”