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The Celtics have spent the last few years lurking in the upper tier of the Eastern Conference, mostly joined by the Bucks and Raptors before the Heat made their surprising NBA Finals run last season.

But now there will likely be a new team tussling near the top. Nets superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are healthy, and their returns could shift the conference’s landscape.

“They’re up there with anyone, and when you watch them play the other night, it’s very clear,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said before Friday night’s 113-89 thumping by the Nets. “I think Kevin has been one of the great players of this generation, and Kyrie is super special. And you [add] those two to a team that’s been in the playoffs the last two years. They’re super deep, I like their additions in the offseason, adding [Landry] Shamet, adding Jeff Green in addition to those guys. So, excellent team, and you can tell. All you have to do is watch five minutes of the Washington game, and you can tell that this is an elite-level team that will be very, very good all year.”

Durant missed all of last season after tearing his Achilles tendon and Irving was limited to 20 games before undergoing shoulder surgery in March.

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“I think when you have a player the caliber of Kyrie and [his] talent, everything changes,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “The conference gets better, the division gets better, their players only get better. We all know what Kyrie’s capable of at any given moment, and he doesn’t care who’s in front of you.”

Friday’s preseason game, Irving’s first in Boston since leaving the Celtics after the 2018-19 season, was the Celtics’ first glimpse of the new-look Nets. These teams will meet again here on Christmas in a game that counts.

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Back at last

Friday’s preseason game was Boston’s first at the Garden since the NBA shut down last March. There were no fans in attendance and strict new safety protocols are in place.

But Stevens said it simply felt good to be back in the building.

“I think we all look for these little tidbits of normalcy,” he said. “It’s obviously a really tough time everywhere over the last nine months. I hadn’t been back in the Garden since March 8th or 9th, and so it was special to walk in last week … It’s a special place. It won’t be the same without fans, we did a little season-ticket call last night with a bunch of our fans, and it was just great to see those faces. We hope to get to that point at some point throughout the season, but these gyms that you get a chance to play in and coach in are special when there’s no one there. They’re just really special when packed.”

Theis makes return

Center Daniel Theis returned after missing Tuesday’s exhibition opener against the 76ers because of a sore back. He replaced Robert Williams in the starting lineup, with center Tristan Thompson still sidelined by a sore hamstring. Also, backup center Tacko Fall was sidelined was an eye irritation.

Stevens knows the accelerated preseason leaves little time to dust off cobwebs or heal nagging injuries. The Celtics open the regular season at home against the Bucks on Wednesday.

“I want to be playing as well as I can be at that time,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be as good as we’ll be late in the season, but that’s OK. We’re going to learn a lot about ourselves.”

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Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.