The Celtics were not supposed to have a chance in this series against the Nets, and over the first two games, it showed. They wobbled home after being shoved around during a frustrating stay in Brooklyn, and over the past few days their dimming hopes almost turned into an afterthought.
The discussion was centered on Kyrie Irving taking the floor in front of Boston’s fans for the first time since he left two years ago, and whether things would get ugly. But inside the Celtics’ locker room, there was a growing belief that despite the lopsided beginning, despite the fact that Jaylen Brown was injured, despite the rest of the basketball world dreaming about a savory Bucks/Nets matchup in the next round, this series was not over. Not yet.
Boston had given plenty of reasons to believe it would go out with a whimper, but it also had Jayson Tatum. And on Friday night, with the Celtics’ season seeming to be careening toward a rapid end, the All-Star forward erupted for 50 points and guided the Celtics to a 125-119 win that pulled them within 2-1 in this best-of-seven series.
“He’s so advanced for 23 years old,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I’ve said the word ‘special’. I don’t say that very often, obviously. He just has a unique ability to score the ball, to slither through seams, to find angles to score. But then also he’s got the vision to make every right read. He was super.”
Friday’s crowd was lively, but TD Garden remained at just 25 percent capacity. Those limits will be lifted for Sunday’s Game 4, and fans will arrive with a belief that hardly existed prior to Game 3. Yes, the Nets still have a team that is favored to win the NBA title. But one more Boston win would start to reset what could be possible.
“If you have a team that’s desperate to fight,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said, “you can never count them out.”
After Brooklyn’s Game 2 win on Tuesday, Irving had some searing comments about potentially facing racially charged language in his return to Boston. He was booed every time he touched the ball Friday and chants were directed at him throughout the night, but nothing materialized beyond that.
At one point during an official review to determine if Irving had committed a flagrant foul, he was showered with an expletive-laced chant. He stood on the court by himself and gestured for the fans to keep going.
He probably would have preferred to silence them with his play, but he made just 6 of 17 shots and did not have any of the dominant stretches he is capable of. After the game, Irving mostly shrugged off the extra attention.
“I mean, it’s basketball,” he said. “I’ve been in a few environments in my life. So, like I said, as long as it’s just strictly the nature of basketball out there, it’s nothing extra. I’m cool with it.”
Smart had 25 points and Tristan Thompson added 19 points and 13 rebounds for the Celtics. On Friday morning, Thompson spoke about the importance of the Celtics playing a bruising, physical style that made the Nets feel their presence. He did his part, tussling for offensive rebounds, revving up the crowd, and snarling whenever it felt right.
“That energy is contagious,” Thompson said. “That’s what playoff basketball is about so that’s my calling card.”
Center Robert Williams suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter and did not return. Stevens said after the game that Williams was in a walking boot and that the team is hopeful he will be available Sunday after getting rest and medical treatment.
Although Irving struggled, Brooklyn’s two other stars did not. James Harden had 41 points, 10 assists, and 7 rebounds, and Kevin Durant added 35 points. But Tatum was even better.
The Nets often swarmed him with multiple defenders, but Tatum has shown during this dominant season that sometimes a defense’s approach makes no difference. Time and again he hunted switches involving either Nets center Blake Griffin, who cannot keep up, or Irving, who cannot match up. He mixed in daring drives to the rim with an array of jumpers, and Brooklyn had no answer.
“Sometimes,” Tatum said, “nights like these are needed.”
Friday’s start mostly looked like a continuation of the first two games in Brooklyn. In a blink, the Nets had drilled four 3-pointers and surged to a 19-4 lead. And that may have been the best thing that could have happened to the Celtics.
The Nets were already brimming with confidence, and their hot start seemed to be another example of their superiority, and it appeared to cause them to ease up a bit. The Celtics closed the second quarter with a 10-0 run.
Boston led, 67-57, in the third quarter before the Nets responded with a 16-5 burst that was capped by an Irving jumper that gave Brooklyn a 73-72 lead. But with Kemba Walker struggling and Tatum facing new double teams, Smart stepped forward and drilled three 3-pointers in less than two minutes, including a four-point play as he was fouled by Irving.
Then Tatum took it from there. The All-Star scored nine points in the final 2:49 of the third, using a dizzying array of jump-shots that left the Nets wondering what more they could do to stop him. After the Nets sliced a 16-point deficit to 5 in the final minute of the fourth, Tatum calmly put them away by drilling a contested 20-footer that gave him 50 points on the night.
“This was a good reminder for us,” Harden said, “that things aren’t going to be easy.”