NEW YORK — The best scenario that could emanate from the Celtics’ Game 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets is a fresh blueprint on how to compete and perhaps overtake the Nets’ Big Three.
There were several moments in Game 1 where the Celtics outplayed their more talented opponents. They were locked in defensively, played with purpose on offense, and unleashed the legend of Robert Williams, who blocked nine shots and altered others just by his presence.
For example, in the first half, Kevin Durant took an outlet pass and dribbled vigorously up the floor, ready to attack the rim before he saw Williams approaching. Durant pulled back and decided to pull up for a jump shot that missed.
Williams will play in Game 2 after dealing with turf toe, and he gives Boston its best chance of tying this series. What served as hope for the Celtics: The Nets played an ordinary game because of the Boston defense. They scored 14 points below their season average.
The issue for the Celtics was putting Durant and James Harden on the free throw line a combined 22 times. Durant scored 32 points but missed 15 of 25 shots. Harden was 5-for-13 shooting but reached 21 points because he attempted 10 free throws.
What’s more, the Nets’ Big Three attempted 27 of the team’s 29 free throws. So if the Celtics can defend without fouling, they will give themselves a better opportunity. They didn’t come away the least bit intimidated or daunted by Brooklyn, only regretting they didn’t play better.
“Listen, if you have a team with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, you better step on the court feeling good about yourself,” center Tristan Thompson said. “We don’t [care] about that. At the end of the day they put their socks on just like us. We’re not intimidated or anything like that.”
Yet, the Celtics are the less talented team in this series, meaning their execution has to be precise to extend the series beyond four games. Brooklyn relied solely on its Big Three for offense and Durant and Harden went a combined 15 for 38 from the field, so the Celtics played adequate defense.
The Celtics lost because they couldn’t score. Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier missed open shots. Jayson Tatum did not record a field goal in the second half and stopped attacking the rim. The Celtics have to find a way to get easier baskets, which shouldn’t be difficult considering the Nets don’t play with a true rim protector.
DeAndre Jordan did not play in Game 1. The Celtics constantly challenged Blake Griffin, who started at center, and were successful. Brooklyn coach Steve Nash caught on and didn’t play Griffin for the final 16:36 of the game, instead using Jeff Green and Nicolas Claxton at center.
“Instead of just isolating [our scorers] and having their defense be set, try to get them into second actions where they are going to have to make multiple efforts,” Thompson said about attacking Brooklyn’s constantly switching defense. “There’s going to be times in the game whether it’s Kemba, JT, or Evan have a matchup where they want to go isolation but that can’t be our main offense because we did that in the second half and it didn’t work.”
The Celtics shot 32.5 percent in the second half and scored 40 points. The trio of Fournier, Tatum, and Walker were a combined 1-for-7 shooting with 6 points in that pivotal quarter when Brooklyn assumed control.
“Their switching is disruptive,” Fournier said. “It throws you off balance. The offensive isn’t the same when the guys in front of you can watch one through five [guard through center]. I have to do a better job of maybe creating more actions and having more energy on the floor and be more available. I watched the film and I’m going to try to do better things [Tuesday].”
The Celtics walked away from Game 1 knowing they can compete with the Nets and perhaps win with the proper adjustments.
“I feel really good about how we needed to play,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “But we weren’t as good offensively. We knew what we needed to do but we have had two more days to really hone in on that. But the other team is going to do that too and any time you’re in a playoff series I think it’s really important that you are anticipating what they might do different.
“I thought we played good defense but I think the whole time we have to score more than 110 to beat these guys on a normal night.”
And Stevens knows the Nets are going to be better Tuesday, as they are still trying to gain cohesion and chemistry because the Big Three played just eight regular-season games together. Game 1 offered the chance for the Celtics to learn they do belong on the court with the Celtics. Of the eight Game 1s, four lower seeds won. The talent margin between the league’s elite and those trying to get there is not as large as in previous years.
Game 1 didn’t prove that the Celtics could win the series, but it did prove they are capable of winning Game 2.