NEW YORK — After losing a mostly competitive Game 1 against the Nets despite scoring just 93 points, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said his team would not really have a chance unless it ramped up its offense. He said it would probably take more than 110 points to beat Brooklyn.
Then Game 2 began Tuesday night, and it became clear that Stevens’s magic number was far too low. The Nets topped the 110-point mark in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Soon after that, starters from both teams were on the bench watching the Nets’ inexorable march to a 130-108 win that gave them a commanding 2-0 series lead.
For most of the night, this game felt like a celebration and an exhibition, but it certainly did not feel like a tense playoff matchup. James Harden quickly dribbled between his legs as if someone was filming him for a mix tape. Blake Griffin turned back time with powerful dunks. The Barclays Center crowd even chanted for Celtics center Tacko Fall, who sat on the bench in street clothes because he was inactive.
The Nets led by as many as 33 points, and it felt that way when they did.
No, the series is not over just yet. But through two games here, the Celtics have given little reason to believe that it will not end soon. This matchup now shifts to Boston, where a revved-up TD Garden crowd Friday will be eagerly awaiting its first look at Kyrie Irving since his departure two years ago. That energy should provide a jolt, but it certainly won’t last long if the game is anything like this one.
“Obviously, I don’t have to tell you guys that being down, 3-0, is not a good place,” Celtics guard Evan Fournier said. “So we have to regroup, stay focused, stay locked in, learn from our mistakes, and just be ready for a battle, period.”
With Jaylen Brown already sidelined after undergoing wrist surgery, any hopes of a Celtics comeback Tuesday were dashed when Jayson Tatum left the game after being poked in the eye by Nets star Kevin Durant three minutes into the second half.
Tatum briefly returned to the bench in the third quarter, and Stevens said Tatum struggled trying to readjust to the lights in the arena. He went back to the locker room soon after and did not return. Stevens said that Tatum’s eye was red, swollen, and uncomfortable, but he was unsure what it could mean regarding his availability for Game 3.
Celtics guard Marcus Smart spoke to Tatum after the loss and was more optimistic.
“I’m sure he’ll be playing in Game 3,” Smart said, “and we’ll get right back to it.”
Even when Tatum has been available in this series, though, he has not been able to carry the Celtics like he did so many times this season. He made 3 of 12 shots Tuesday and is now just 9 for 32 in the series.
He faced constant traps and double teams even when the Celtics were whole, and Brown’s absence makes that decision even easier for the Nets.
“We’re running plays for him,” Smart said. “We’re doing everything that we can to help him. But at the same time, Jayson has to continue to be able to adjust to the defense that he’s seeing out there. We’ve just got to continue to get open for him. We’ve got to continue to get in his eyesight and JT’s got to continue to make the pass to us, even if we’re making or missing them.”
Smart had 19 points to lead the Celtics, buoyed by a two-minute stretch in the third quarter in which he drilled four 3-pointers. But the rest of the night was mostly devoid of offensive highlights for Boston.
That was no such issue for the Nets, who had a balanced and unrelenting attack, led by Durant’s 26 points.
The Celtics were well aware of the dangers posed by the Nets’ trio of superstars, but Fournier said Stevens warned the team before the game that Brooklyn’s secondary options remained threats. Then Joe Harris found space and commanded the opening quarter by drilling four 3-pointers, helping flip a 12-11 deficit into a Nets lead that would never be in danger again. In the first quarter, Harris was 6 for 7 from the field and scored 16 of his 25 points.
“They did look for [their other scorers] a little bit more,” Fournier said. “But I felt like we kind of messed up some coverages early that led to open shots, and obviously Harris is a hell of a shooter. Once he got going, he was hard to stop.”
Brooklyn made 52.3 percent of its shots and 44.7 percent of its 3-pointers.
After the game, Stevens spoke positively about some of the contributions of the backups during the fourth quarter, and twice said that he would evaluate rotation changes for Game 3. He said that for much of the game the Celtics “felt small out there.”
“We need to look at that,” he said.
It seems unlikely that swapping a couple of backups into the primary rotation will be enough to give the Celtics a chance in this series. But Smart made it clear that they are not ready for this tumultuous season to end just yet.
“We’ve had plenty of games where we’ve been down and we’ve came back,” he said, “series where we’ve been down and came back. So, it’s nothing new. Unfortunately, we haven’t been playing good all year, but we can’t let that really sway how we come out and play this next Game 3.”