One week ago the new-look Nets came to TD Garden for a preseason game and showed the Celtics why they will be an Eastern Conference force this year. But the game did not count, and the Celtics were hopeful that the result and the message would be different when it did.
Then this Christmas game, a real game, arrived, and the Nets were perhaps even more dominant, as they punished Boston during the second half and rolled to a 123-95 win.
Point guard Kyrie Irving, playing his first regular-season game in Boston since leaving the team in the summer of 2018, had 37 points and eight assists. Kevin Durant added 29 points. The Nets outscored the Celtics, 72-41, in the second half.
Jaylen Brown had 27 points and eight rebounds to lead the Celtics, and Jayson Tatum added 20 points on 9-for-22 shooting. The Celtics made just 37.8 percent of their shots overall.
Observations from the game:
⋅ The Nets have shot-makers at every turn, and Brown and Marcus Smart separately brought up the impact it can have when a team like that is pouring in one basket after another.
“They put pressure on you by making shots on the other end,” Smart said, “so if you don’t come down and execute and get a great shot, they put your defense in the bind with the way they run.”
Added Brown: “They’ve got a lot of shot makers on that team and once they hit shots we can’t get discouraged. We can’t let that speed us up. We’ve got to keep moving the ball, keep playing our game. I thought once they started making shots we felt the pressure a little bit and that comes with poise, it comes with experience, and we’re going to continue to build on that.”
The Celtics, meanwhile, simply do not have that many shot-makers right now. Rookie Aaron Nesmith hasn’t been part of the rotation in the first two games, and Kemba Walker is out with a knee injury.
Finding offense will be a chore on some nights. The encouraging news for Boston is that Brown has helped keep the offense afloat by capably taking more on his shoulders. He looks very comfortable in all phases of his attack right now.
⋅ This was an extremely challenging two-game stretch to start the season, and coach Brad Stevens is probably fine with the various scenarios his team experienced. The Celtics coughed up a 17-point fourth-quarter lead against the Bucks before pulling the win out with some late heroics.
Against the Nets, the Celtics led at halftime before being walloped after the break, as some of their defensive flaws were exposed. The end result is a 1-1 record and plenty to build on.
“It’s a great look to test us as a team to see where we’re at and where we need to get to,” Smart said.
⋅ Tristan Thompson started the game guarding Durant, but Durant didn’t really exploit the matchup. The start of the third quarter was different. Durant scored 9 consecutive Brooklyn points over a two-minute stretch, all with Thompson as his defender.
After a timeout, Smart took the assignment, but after Grant Williams switched onto Durant he drilled another 3, helping Brooklyn expand its lead to 81-73. Durant had 9 points on 2-of-6 shooting in the first half and had 16 on 6-of-7 shooting in the third quarter alone.
“I thought Durant really battled and Tristan did a good job,” Stevens said. “We have to get better in other areas. The isolation defense on Kevin Durant is an issue for every person in the world. That’s how good Kevin Durant is. All you can do is battle.”
⋅ Tatum, who averaged 4.7 free throws per game last season and 7.2 in the playoffs, has yet to step to the foul line this year. He does not appear to be settling for jumpers too frequently, but this team, if offensively challenged will need Tatum to draw contract and find his way to the line.
⋅ Brooklyn’s offense will likely be the most potent in the Eastern Conference, and when Durant and Irving started the fourth quarter on the bench, Caris LeVert hit consecutive baskets and fired a pass to Landry Shamet for a 3-pointer, stretching Brooklyn’s lead to 95-79.
“I think it’s the deepest team in the NBA and quite possibly — certainly in the conversation for the best,” Stevens said. “We know that we have a lot of work to do, that’s very clear. And we know what we have to shoot for.”
⋅ The Celtics once again used a two-big starting lineup that featured Daniel Theis and Thompson. It was slightly surprising this time because backup center Robert Williams was sidelined with an illness, limiting options with the second unit a bit.
Thompson was dominant for a stretch of the first quarter, pulling down four offensive rebounds. Both players dealt with some foul troubles, though, including being called for offensive fouls on seal plays that have become trademarks of this offense.
“I don’t really get that,” Tatum said. “A roll and seal, I don’t think there’s as much difference if they were rolling to catch the ball. But I guess the refs watched the tape on it and are emphasizing it, so we’ll have to adjust.”
⋅ Nesmith made his regular-season debut with Boston trailing by 16 points and just under 10 minutes left in the fourth. He took a 3-pointer just over a minute later and it was an air-ball, but he connected on his next attempt later in the period. It’s clear that fellow rookie Payton Pritchard is quite a bit ahead of Nesmith on the depth chart.
Pritchard had 7 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 steals in 25 minutes, but he was whistled for having his foot on the sideline twice in the fourth quarter, including before drilling what would have been a key 3-pointer before Brooklyn pulled away.
⋅ Backup point guard Jeff Teague will not shoot 100 percent from beyond the 3-point line as a Celtic, believe it or not. Teague, who had been 9 for 9, including the preseason, was off on a second-quarter try.
⋅ The Celtics held a moment of silence prior to the game for former guard and coach K.C. Jones, who died Friday morning due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach