Amid all of the derisive chants directed at him, and his middle fingers directed at the chanters, it’s easy to forget that there was a time not long ago when Nets guard Kyrie Irving was with Boston, pushing toward something big.
He has played alongside most of these Celtics, and he can’t help but notice that his former teammates appear ready for their big playoff moment.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Irving said. “I just think the timing is right. Their window is now for these young guys on this team that have matured. They’ve been through series together, been through seasons together, they’ve been through battles together.”
Irving was speaking late Wednesday night, after watching the Celtics roar back from a 17-point deficit and surge to a 114-107 win that gave them a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series.
Over these two games, the Nets have shown why many believed the Celtics made a mistake at the regular season by declining to manipulate the standings in order to avoid this matchup. Brooklyn led in the fourth quarter of both of these playoff games. Boston needed a buzzer-beater on a frantic possession in Game 1, and it needed to claw back from this hefty deficit in Game 2.
But the Celtics have also shown why they were not scared. Both times, despite some uneasy moments, they found a way, and now they are in control of the series as it shifts to Brooklyn for Game 3 on Saturday night. If Boston does advance, a prospect which seems increasingly probable, it will likely be hardened by these battles as it moves forward in pursuit of bigger things.
“This was like an old-fashioned, old-school playoff game,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “Both teams were physical from the jump, getting into each other and just making it difficult. You just have to grind it out. That’s what we did.”
Tatum seemed annoyed for most of the night. The Nets constantly trapped him no matter how close he was to the basket, and he did not make a field goal until the final minute of the first half. He yelled at himself several times, and slammed the ball into the floor in frustration.
But he was also reminded that he is not here alone. So there was Grant Williams (17 points), pouring in three big 3-pointers when the Celtics were wobbling during the first half. There was Payton Pritchard, registering 8 points during the fourth-quarter comeback.
“They’ve got to be aggressive,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “They’ve got to make plays. If they’re going to treat them like a non-basketball player and not pay attention to them, they’ve got to attack. We give them the confidence to go be themselves.”
Brown had 22 points, and Tatum made 5 of 16 shots and finished with 19 points and 10 assists, and he put the finishing touches on Boston’s fourth-quarter rally.
But the Nets were unable to overcome the shooting struggles of their own stars. Irving and Kevin Durant combined to make just 1 of 17 shots in the second half, with Boston using its length to disrupt Irving and its double-teams to fluster Durant.
Irving erupted for 39 points and nearly guided his team to a win in Game 1, but Durant’s struggles are more pronounced.
Over the last two games he is 13 for 41 from the field and 2 for 7 from the 3-point line, with 12 turnovers. He stayed relevant Wednesday by connecting on 18 of 20 foul shots, but he understands his team needs more.
“They’re playing two or three guys on me sometimes when I’m off the ball, mucking up actions when I run off stuff,” Durant said. “I see [Al] Horford leaving his man and coming over to hit me sometimes. There’s two or three guys hitting me wherever I go, and that’s just the nature of the beast in the playoffs.”
Despite Durant’s difficulties, the Nets’ offense actually ran quite smoothly over the first seven quarters of this series, putting a dent in the Celtics’ top-ranked defense.
But when the fourth quarter arrived Wednesday, Boston provided a reminder of what made it so fearsome. The Nets, who did not trail during the first three quarters, managed just 4 points over the first eight minutes of the fourth, helping the Celtics flip a 92-85 deficit into a 101-94 lead.
The Celtics’ 16-2 run was sparked by Brown (22 points), who drilled two 3-pointers and had two strong finishes inside.
“We spaced them out a little bit differently in the second half and kept their bigs [on the perimeter], so there’s more space to attack,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “When [Brown] gets downhill, he’s such a powerful, forceful driver that he’s going to either score or make the right play, and he did that in the second half.”
Tatum helped finish off the win by going on a 7-0 burst of his own, capping it with a 3-pointer that stretched Boston’s advantage to 108-96.