NEW YORK — The Celtics arrived here for this first-round playoff matchup against the Nets with few believing they could make this a competitive series, much less win it. Jaylen Brown was on the bench in street clothes, and the Nets superstars who had spent much of this season doing that were all on the court in their uniforms, and it didn’t figure to be a good combination for Boston.
For a stretch in the first half, though, as the Nets’ 3-pointers thudded off the rim and Boston’s slid through the net, it appeared that perhaps the Celtics would have a chance to steal a win before Brooklyn realized what was going wrong.
But that early surprise turned out to be fleeting. The Nets have too much offensive firepower to be subdued for an entire game, and they proved it by grabbing a 104-93 Game 1 win despite their own wobbly play. The Celtics simply did not receive the powerful performances that will be needed to make an upset possible, and may not get a chance as good as this one again.
“We can’t get down on ourselves,” center Robert Williams said. “We can’t get discouraged. In our heads we have to be ready to fight back.”
Williams, who has been slowed by a turf toe injury in recent weeks, had 11 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 blocks in just 23 minutes. But Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker could not get untracked. Tatum had 22 points on 6-for-20 shooting and Walker was slowed by foul trouble for much of the night and had 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting. The Celtics shot 36.9 percent from the field and made just 13 of 40 attempts in the second half.
“Hey, you can guard these guys really well, but you’re still going to have to score,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “So we need that same emphasis as we move forward.”
Kevin Durant had 32 points and 12 rebounds and Kyrie Irving added 29 points for the Nets.
The Celtics led by as many as 12 points during a first half in which the Nets made just 1 of 13 3-pointers. Boston was 9 for 17 from beyond the arc, and given those two statistics, it should have been cause for concern that Boston held just a 53-47 lead at the break.
Brooklyn quickly seized the lead in the third quarter and appeared poised to turn the game into a blowout, but the Celtics lingered. Boston trailed, 82-79, midway through the fourth quarter and had the ball and a chance to tie the game with a three. Then Evan Fournier backed down Joe Harris and missed.
This Nets offense is capable of turning an opponent’s missed opportunity into its demise. In this case, Irving hit a long jumper and a 3-pointer, and then Durant came up with a steal and a dunk. In less than a minute, a one-possession game had been flipped into Brooklyn’s first double-digit advantage of the night.
Observations from the game:
▪ Much like they did during regular-season matchups against the Pistons, the Celtics constantly hunted defensive switches involving Blake Griffin, most often with Tatum as the lead orchestrator. Griffin simply doesn’t have the foot speed to keep up with Boston’s perimeter players. In the first quarter, Tatum attacked Griffin for an easy layup that helped him find his rhythm. In one second-quarter stretch he used the advantage to be more of a facilitator, blowing past Griffin and forcing other defenders to commit, leading to a wide open Marcus Smart 3-pointer and a Williams dunk. The Celtics will look to exploit Griffin whenever he is on the floor during this series.
Stevens, unsurprisingly, didn’t single out Griffin in particular after the game. But without being asked, he did bring up the need to find favorable matchups.
“We’ve got to do a better job of attacking them with all the switching and being a little bit more purposeful than that,” Stevens said. “They’ve got a lot of athletic guys out there and prideful individual defenders. And they know how to play. So we’ve got to be better at manipulating actions to get what we want.”
▪ Williams’s status for Saturday’s game was unclear until about an hour before tipoff. But he played and seemed to be moving quite well, and he had a huge impact in the first half.
The most satisfying moment for Celtics fans came when he swatted an Irving layup attempt out of bounds. That was one of his four first-half blocks in just 10 minutes of action. The Nets don’t have a real post threat, but they do have so many skilled players capable of getting to the rim with ease that Williams’s presence in this series will be essential.
“His timing is amazing,” Irving said. “It’s great to see a big that’s that active at the rim and challenging us at the rim every time. He’s going to test our IQ for the rest of these games.”
▪ With Brown out and Tatum and Walker combining to make 11 of 36 shots, the Celtics don’t have much of a chance. But Stevens said several times after the loss that Boston’s offensive approach must be different in Game 2.
In addition to attacking the switching defense better, he stressed that the team has to do a better job of cutting and making quicker decisions. Tatum has been consistent for most of the year, but the Celtics generally thrive when they unlock chances for Walker. Look for that to be the focus in the coming days.
“We need to probably do some things that we did midseason that we’ll go back to and look at,” Stevens said.
Tatum said that the Celtics can’t afford to be stagnant.
“You’ve got to be quick, obviously, when they’re loading up and helping, whatever it is,” Tatum said. “You can’t relax. You’ve got to go quick.”
▪ Jabari Parker had mostly fallen out of Boston’s rotation recently but he had a surprisingly lengthy chance and was effective. He hit a 3-pointer and scored on a nice drive in the first half and had 7 points and four rebounds in 21 minutes. His scoring ability has rarely been questioned, of course, but he is generally a defensive liability.
The Nets were aware of that as they sought opportunities to go at Parker in isolation, but he mostly held up. On one third-quarter sequence he even stripped Durant on a drive and finished the play with a dunk.
“Obviously, Jabari has real size and he’s long,” Stevens said. “I thought he did a good job today on both ends. And the other part of it was, you go into this and you think ‘We’ve got to score. We’ve got to find points.’ And I think Jabari showed himself well.”