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Gary Washburn | On Basketball

Celtics don’t play with a natural aggression but they can’t back down if they want to compete with Nets

Kevin Durant (left) drove past the Celtics' Jayson Tatum on his way to the basket in the Net's Game 1 victory.Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

There’s a photo of NBA veteran Kevin Durant at his basketball camp with a high school Jayson Tatum, baby-faced and giddy at taking a photo with one of his basketball idols.

Fast forward to 2021: Durant has been primarily responsible for defending Tatum, and in the first two games of their playoff series, he committed a flagrant foul on the Celtics All-Star that resulted in a groin injury and inadvertently poked Tatum in the eye during a scramble. Tatum immediately left the game and did not return.

Durant was not whistled for a foul.

Tatum will be able to play in Friday’s Game 3. The Nets have been the more physical team thus far, even the skillful Durant, who has helped Brooklyn bottle up Tatum with imposing defense.


The Celtics have to change this if they stand any chance to win Game 3 and make this a competitive series. The Celtics are not an ornery team. They don’t have many players who will get in your face after a hard foul.

Evan Fournier was one Celtics who wasn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Kevin Durant in Game 2.Elsa/Getty

They lack a true enforcer. But Evan Fournier may have provided a spark when he got into an exchange with Durant after they battled for position in the post late in the third quarter with the Celtics down by 24. That was the first sign of fight for the Celtics in the series and that needs to continue.

Not actual fighting, but playing with a passion and attitude they haven’t shown in this series. Not allowing Brooklyn defenders to rough up your best player without a confrontation or a face-to-face discussion.

“That’s for sure,” Tatum said when asked if he needs to let defenders know there’s a limit to the punishment. “I know [Durant] didn’t intend to poke me in the eye but it’s just kind of how it went when I looked at it. But obviously they didn’t call a foul. It wasn’t intentional but I felt like the ref was right there but you know I feel like that’s how it goes sometimes. Just be ready for the next game, that’s all I can say.”


It’s apparent Tatum doesn’t feel he gets his proper respect from officials. But he has to be more forceful on the floor when opponents are going to try to contain him with physicality. The Celtics need to be tougher, grittier, and more physical.

“You have to bring it, and eventually you’re going to get tired of it,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said of dealing with the Nets’ physicality. “And you’re going to have to respond and at this point, you’ve got to protect yourself and you’ve got to protect your teammates. If the game is going to allow the other team to [be physical] to us, you have to do it back.”

Smart has no problem confronting opponents, but he can’t be the only one. When the Celtics lost Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier, they lost toughness. Even Enes Kanter didn’t take any garbage. But with the Celtics being so young, lacking true veterans, and Jaylen Brown being on the sideline with an injury, the issue persists.

Marcus Smart -- seen here wrestling James Harden for a rebound in Game 2 -- has never been afraid to get a little physical with an opponent.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

“Obviously, the consequences don’t matter because they get to do it and we don’t, so at this moment forget the consequences and you’ve got to protect yourself,” Smart said. “If we’ve got to get into some faces, we’ve got to get into some faces. We’re out here to play basketball, but we’re all grown men. We’re going to fight back. Nobody is going to be able to punk us like that. Evan did the right thing and I expect that from everybody on this team. Even if it’s not in your nature, eventually you’re going to get tired of it.”


The Celtics should also be tired of Brooklyn using the second half to showcase the dunking skills of former dunk champion Blake Griffin, who has lost significant athleticism but scored on soaring one-handed dunks in the second half when the game was already decided.

The Nets are obviously the better team but the Celtics looked discouraged and disheveled in the second half, especially after Tatum left.

“You’ve got to be ready to roll from the tip against these guys,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “You’ve got to be not only motivated but you’ve got to be on edge and prepared to compete to the nth degree on every possession. I thought Blake’s plays were physical and aggressive. The most important thing is we’re down 2-0. [Friday] is important. [Friday], the edge, the pride, the competitiveness and everything needs to be at its best level. Again, I feel good about things we’ve done in each of these games.

“We have to be much more physical; we have to be better defensively. Edge, competitive level is a huge, huge part of the weekend.”

The Celtics can’t get too out of character by turning into the ’89 Pistons but they have to elevate to a playoff level and let Nets players know that physicality will be matched with physicality. That’s the only chance they have to extend this series beyond four games.


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