Last summer, after Nets forward Kevin Durant helped lead USA Basketball to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, he was recording a cellphone video on the court with former Brooklyn assistant and new Celtics coach Ime Udoka when guard Patty Mills walked over.
Mills had just won a bronze medal for Australia and now he and Durant were set to become teammates for the first time.
“There’s gonna be problems for the Boston Celtics this year,” Durant said, smiling. “I’m telling you.”
Udoka quipped that he at least knew how to stop Mills, whom he had coached in San Antonio for several years.
On Wednesday night, these teams faced each other for the first time since then, and Durant’s vision appeared most prescient. The Nets rolled to a dominant and destructive 123-104 win, and showed that the gap between these squads remains sizable.
Mills, meanwhile, drilled seven 3-pointers and scored a game-high 23 points. He has stepped in admirably for Kyrie Irving, who remains sidelined because of his decision not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Irving, a former Celtics point guard, has become one of the great Boston villains, and he has been the focus of home games against the Nets whether he is attending them or not. The last time the Nets came to TD Garden, in fact, the night ended with Irving stomping on the Celtics logo at midcourt following his team’s resounding Game 4 win in an opening-round playoff series.
But on Wednesday, Irving’s absence hardly created a ripple. There was one very brief and sparse chant directed at him, and on the court, Brooklyn seemed just fine without him. It led by as many as 29 points, smothered one big Boston rally, and ultimately cruised comfortably.
“I felt that was the first time in a while that we got out-hustled and outworked,” Udoka said. “They came out playing harder than us from the start.”
The Celtics built up their win totals and confidence over the past few weeks. But the fact remained that their small surge had come against mostly mediocre competition. This game was an indication of stalled progress.
“They came out the more aggressive team,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “We probably gave them too much respect. They are what they are — a good team. But at the end of the day this is a learning experience for our group and I hope it helps us the next time.”
Afterward, Udoka told his team that it had finished a good homestand, but that it could have been a great one with this win. Now, Boston will push forward with a schedule that will be unforgiving for several weeks.
It was a forgettable night for Boston’s two stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who combined to make just 1 of 17 3-pointers. Brown was cleared to play just a half-hour before tipoff after being questionable because of lingering soreness related to the hamstring strain that sidelined him for eight games. But he said he felt better during this one than he did against the Thunder on Monday. That was one of the few positives.
The Celtics connected on just 11 of 48 3-point attempts as a team. Although many of them were clean, open looks, Udoka acknowledged that there were some missed opportunities in the paint, too, because the Celtics failed to move the ball with crisp, constant passes that could have kept Brooklyn’s defense more off balance.
“I felt a lot of times, we backed it out and held it and they loaded it up,” Udoka said, “and so we got a little stagnant there in the first quarter especially.”
Marcus Smart led Boston with 20 points and 8 assists, but the defense that has been so good recently took a step backward. Brooklyn connected on 50.6 percent of its shots. The Celtics said that their missed shots on offense affected their intensity on defense, a troubling combination against a powerful team such as this one.
Boston was also preoccupied with officiating. Udoka challenged a second-quarter foul call against Tatum and it was reversed, but he also received a technical foul for voicing his general frustrations at halftime. During one 12-second stretch in the third quarter, Smart was whistled for fouling James Harden three times. Every few minutes, it seemed, a Celtics player was complaining about something.
“I think [officiating] definitely had an impact on our guys, on our group,” Horford said. “At the end of the day, we can’t let that stuff get to us.”
The Nets led, 91-62, with less than four minutes left in the third quarter. There were some boos, but fans appeared to have mostly come to terms with the dud.
Celtics forward Jabari Parker, who has been used sparingly this season, was sent into the game in what seemed like an acknowledgment of defeat. Instead, he was on the court for Boston’s 17-0 run that gave this holiday crowd some hope.
A dunk by Tatum pulled Boston within 97-85 with 9:24 left. But Mills, who gave Boston fits from beyond the arc all night, drilled two more tough ones over the next few minutes to silence Boston’s run before it became a significant concern.