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Gary Washburn | On Basketball

The Celtics must find a way to beat the East’s elites. The loss to the Nets shows how far they have to go

Kyrie Irving reacts after leading Brooklyn past the Celtics Thursday night.Adam Hunger

The Celtics enjoyed their moments in their return to the floor after a six-day break, pushing one of the elite teams in the NBA to the final minutes. Yet, there’s no way the club should come away from this game encouraged.

That should be beneath them. The Celtics should feel as if they should have beaten the Brooklyn Nets without Kevin Durant on Thursday at Barclays Center in New York. They yielded a 40-point game to former Celtic Kyrie Irving in the 121-109 loss.

But less acceptable than giving up a sparkling game to a great player is the team’s failure to do the little things to steal this one. Slippage on defense allowed reserve Landry Shamet to drain a season-high six 3-pointers, mostly open looks, and each shot was momentum changing.

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It wasn’t Irving that beat the Celtics; it was their lack of doing the little things that are mandatory to beat elite teams. It was a difficult night for Jaylen Brown, who missed 18 of his 23 shot attempts and just looked out of sorts, trying to force matters instead of scoring in the flow of the game.

Kemba Walker scored 9 points in the first quarter and finished the game with 11, meaning he scored one basket in the final three quarters. He came into the game well rested but just again looked as if he doubted himself on the floor.

He was 1-for-7 shooting after the opening period. Meanwhile the man he replaced in Boston was scorching the Celtics with an array of layups, floaters and pull-up 3-pointers.

It’s become apparent the Celtics aren’t going to win anything without three elite players or at least two and another reliable scorer. This was a night when the Celtics needed Walker and he essentially disappeared.

Yes, it’s just one game and the Celtics’ core players have spent little time together on the floor because of injury, but these are the litmus tests they need to pass. They were down 2 with 4:17 left and then allowed the Nets to end the game on a 13-3 run.

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The Celtics were 1-for-5 shooting with two turnovers in that last 4:17. They have to be better.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens complimented the Nets, which is the admirable way following a loss. But the goal moving forward has to be to use this game as a means of improvement the next time these two teams match up, especially if it’s in the postseason.

“We tried to go zone, we tried different things out of the zone, we tried to run and jump and we tried to trap the ball screen a little bit and I thought they did a great job of spacing and making us pay,” Stevens said. “When Kyrie gets going like that, we’ve all seen that, he’s really special. You have to pick your poison a little bit. But credit all those different (Brooklyn) guys who made big shots. That’s a big reason why I think they’re so unique.”

Brad Stevens delivers instructions during the second half of Thursday's game.Adam Hunger

The attitude can’t be, “Hey they’re just better and we can’t do anything about that.” Stevens has to devise a way to beat the Nets four times in seven games.

“You’re not going to beat these guys just guarding them one way, I think they’re too good,” Stevens said. “When you go back and watch the film tonight, there are plays we could have been better with, gambles where we took ourselves out of position. That’s your margin against these guys, just super low.”

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And they still don’t have Kevin Durant, which makes the Celtics’ quest even more daunting. But that doesn’t mean they should relent. The Nets are better than the Celtics on March 12 and it’s now up to the Celtics to make up that gap.

“We would have loved to have this one; we were right there, they’re a really good team,” said Marcus Smart, who scored 19 points in 21 minutes in his first game in nearly six weeks. “There are some things we need to clean up. But it’s very promising. I’m proud of the way we played. I’m glad of the effort.

“We came out there and tried to win the game. They executed better. They did what they were supposed to do and they came out with the win. I can live with a loss when the effort is there. I can’t live with a loss when there’s no effort.”

Jaylen Brown wrestles for a loose ball with Brooklyn's Bruce Brown in the first half Thursday night.Adam Hunger

Losing wasn’t necessarily the worst thing to happen to the Celtics on Thursday. They did play with a concerted effort but not necessarily well at times. That can be corrected but this game should annoy the players and coaches because it was winnable, regardless of Irving’s exploits.

The question is what are the Celtics going to do to win these types of games. Boston is now 0-4 against Brooklyn and Philadelphia this season and Boston is likely to meet one if not both in the postseason.

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“There are some things that we can do better,” forward Jayson Tatum. “There’s a lot to learn from. We’ll be better. I’m sure of that. It’s a learning experience. I’m sure we’ll watch stuff from this game the next time we play them.”


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.