It’s prudent not to overreact to the thumping the Brooklyn Nets handed the Celtics, other than to say they are not on the Nets’ level and aren’t particularly close.
Even without Kyrie Irving, considered an afterthought for the time being, the Nets are an elite club with several prolific scorers. They jumped the Celtics Wednesday and never relented in cruising to a 123-104 win at TD Garden.
The Nets led by as many as 29 as the Celtics reverted to old habits – too many 3-pointers, concentrating too much on officiating, then allowing missed shots to affect their defense.
It was a dismal performance overall. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were no match for counterparts Kevin Durant and James Harden. Tatum and Brown were 1-for-17 shooting from the 3-point line and Tatum was a minus-33 in 30 minutes.
The Celtics did their best work with Brown sitting on the bench and Tatum watching from an exercise bike. They were frustrated by shots not falling and Brooklyn’s collapsing and trapping defense.
It was an opportunity for the Celtics to show a national television audience they had taken a step forward after an awful start to the season. They had won eight of 11 games and their defense had been the catalyst. But this game resembled the playoff series of several months ago when the Nets treated the Celtics like their little brother.
Brooklyn definitely wanted to send a message. The Nets were motivated for this game. The Celtics entered with an uncertainty they could compete with Brooklyn and it showed from the opening tip. They fell behind, 18-7, in the first five-plus minutes and were chasing or tripping over themselves the entire night.
Al Horford is in his 15th year and has faced his share of great teams. He fully understood the Nets were trying to tell the Celtics something with their performance.
“Definitely, they came out the more aggressive team,” he said. “I think we gave them a little too much respect, in my opinion. They are what they are, they’re a good team. But it’s a learning experience for our group and I know that we’ll be better next time.”
This is not to say the Celtics don’t have the capability of competing with the Nets but right now, they don’t. And they even lacked the poise and precision to stay close, which was the most disappointing aspect of the performance. The Nets opened the second half with an 18-3 run and led, 80-52.
“The message [to the players] was I felt like it was the first time in a while that we got outhustled and outworked,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “They came out playing harder than us from the start and then you compound it with the missed shots. It’s obviously a different game when you’re making shots.”
A 28-point deficit is unacceptable. Bill Russell, 87, who also attended Friday’s win over the Lakers, sat courtside and watched the whipping. The Celtics’ faithful were kind and dedicated enough to become reengaged when Boston cut the deficit to 12 with 9:23 left. But that excitement was shortlived. Patty Mills, whom Udoka jokingly promised he would “lock up” defensively during an exchange at the Tokyo Olympics, drained the final two of his seven 3-pointers to restore order.
Speaking of 3-pointers, the Celtics missed 37 from long range, their most since opening night at New York, and an egregious amount that begs for in-game adjustments. If the Celtics aren’t hitting threes, they need to slow down taking threes.
They again fall in love with a shot they’re not very good at, and when they miss, all it does it spark transition offense from their opponents.
“It’s a balance, and we’ve talked about it,” Udoka said. “The contested [threes] in the first half of the first quarter, we felt we weren’t getting downhill [to the basket] at all. I think we are at our best when we’re mixing it up, getting downhill, getting to the free throw line. When you’re not shooting it and they’re giving you that [open] look, it starts getting in your head a little bit. But a lot of those looks are wide open that we’ll take.”
If the Celtics are going to keep chucking threes, they have to defend better and stop complaining about calls. Wednesday’s officiating was putrid at times and the Celtics got jobbed on some calls but they can’t turn their heads barking about a foul that will never been called while Mills is swishing a transition three.
Elite teams are going to capitalize on your weakness and the Nets know the Celtics are a different and more timid team when they’re punched in the mouth first.
As of Thanksgiving Day, the Celtics have major strides to make if they are going to beat Brooklyn in a playoff series, or even extend a playoff series. They are still trying to find their footing against a schedule that’s going to become unforgiving in the coming weeks.
They have to enter these showdown games with better focus, pristine execution and stop crumbling when they don’t get some expected calls. The Nets and others will sense that weakness and attack.