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NETS 121, CELTICS 109

The sizable gap between the Celtics and Nets was clear in this loss, and other observations

Jaylen Brown tries to back down Kyrie Irving during Thursday's game in Brooklyn.Al Bello/Getty

The Celtics believe they have the talent to push toward the top of the Eastern Conference, but it is clear they’re not ready to do it at this point.

On Christmas they were walloped by the Nets at TD Garden, and Brooklyn did not even have James Harden yet. On Thursday they were pushed aside by the Nets at the Barclays Center, 121-109, and Kevin Durant did not even play.

The gap between these teams remains sizable, and Boston has just a few months left to close it.

“Playing against a team like this, the margin of error is very small,” guard Marcus Smart said. “And in those times, we’ve got to be better. But we’re learning. We’re still trying to get to that level.”

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Smart returned after missing nearly six weeks with a calf strain and scored 19 points in just 21 minutes. Jayson Tatum had 31 points, but fellow All-Star Jaylen Brown made just 5 of 23 shots and scored 13.

With Durant still sidelined by a hamstring injury and Harden scuffling through an off night by his standards, former Celtics guard Kyrie Irving stepped in and punished the Celtics with a performance that surely seemed fleetingly familiar to Boston fans. He made 15 of 23 shots and scored 40 points.

The Nets led by 2 at the start of the fourth quarter and took a 100-90 lead on a Jeff Green 3-pointer with 8:46 left. The Celtics clawed back behind Tatum, who drilled a 3-pointer, a short jumper and a tough reverse layup to help Boston pull within 108-106 with 4:17 remaining. But Harden answered with a layup before Irving drilled a deep 3 from the right arc that made it 113-106. Irving then closed Boston out with another 3-pointer and a driving layup.

“This is vintage Kyrie that we’re used to seeing,” Smart said. “We knew that coming into this game.”

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Observations from the game:

▪ The result wasn’t great for the Celtics, but Smart’s return certainly provided reason for optimism. Sure, he had 19 points in just under 21 minutes, but his other contributions provided the best reminders of what Boston has been missing while he was gone, from drawing a fourth-quarter charge on Harden, to smothering a Nets fast break with a block, to battling in the post to keep loose balls alive. His presence provided a jolt.

“It felt good to be back out there with those guys,” Smart said. “Obviously, first game back, a little jitters. But it’s like riding a bike. I just come back and do what I do: try to help my team win games.”

Smart’s playing time will be limited over the next few games, so coach Brad Stevens kept him out of the starting lineup and put him in to finish each quarter, which kept him on the floor as a closer.

“He’s our defensive leader,” Daniel Theis said. “You saw it today, he takes matchups personally. Like, he wanted to get a stop. Like when he guarded Kyrie, he wanted to guard him. He wanted to make it tough for him, make him miss a shot and just be there and lead the way for our whole team. If he needs to run our defense, he is pulling everybody with him.”

▪ Kemba Walker had been excellent recently and had another powerful start, making 4 of 5 shots and scoring 9 points in the first six minutes. But he cooled down considerably after that, scoring just 2 points on 1-of-7 shooting over the rest of the game.

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“I thought they paid a lot of attention to Kemba,” Stevens said. “There’s a lot of length out there on the floor. I thought that he generated some good looks. I thought maybe we could have gone to him a few other times late there, because he’s great at generating a look but he’s also great at handling extra attention and making the right pass.”

Kyrie Irving defends Kemba Walker in the second half of Thursday's game.Adam Hunger

▪ The Celtics have rarely had all of their top players available, so various absences have made the hierarchy more obvious. It’s not a bad problem to have, but if Boston can remain healthy, shots and opportunities will have to be spread out more, and it could be more challenging for players to find a rhythm. For example, Brown was never in the flow of this game, and Walker slipped out of it.

“We’ve just got to go with the guys that have the best potential advantage in that situation, in that night,” Stevens said. “Obviously, there are go-to actions and go-to people that we will be consistent with. I think everybody just has to be ready to make the right play.”

▪ The Nets are a matchup nightmare for most teams, but when their secondary options are drilling 3-pointers when Harden and Irving are spraying passes along the perimeter, they become almost unguardable. Landry Shamet, Green and Tyler Johnson combined to go 10 for 16 from beyond the arc for Brooklyn.

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“We tried to go zone [to slow Irving and Harden],” Stevens said. “We tried different things out of the zone, we tried the run and jump, we tried to trap the ball screen a little bit, and I thought they did a great job of spacing and making us pay with their shooting around those guys.”

Tristan Thompson drives to the basket past DeAndre Jordan during the first half of Thursday's game.Adam Hunger

▪In the second quarter Harden lined up for a jump-ball against Celtics big man Robert Williams and spent several moments directing his teammates into proper positions before the jump, an unusual show of confidence when going against a player who is 4 inches taller and is also one of the game’s most explosive leapers. But Harden is a crafty veteran and he stole the tip, which was really his only hope in a matchup like this. Basically, Harden squats low to the ground and then jumps and tips the ball before it reaches its apex. It’s something of an illusion, but it tends to work.

▪ The Celtics let the clock run down in the final minute of the second quarter to keep the Nets from getting a two-for-one opportunity. But after Theis hit a 3-pointer with 36 seconds left, Boston let the Harden watch the ball roll all the way across midcourt before he picked it up, and the Celtics fouled DeAndre Jordan with 30 seconds left, setting up the two-for-one anyway. Then Brooklyn’s Joe Harris hit a runner just before the buzzer, making the Celtics pay for the gaffe.

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