The Celtics fought, scratched and clawed to stay within striking distance of the efficient Brooklyn Nets by halftime. They were down 10 at the break, 65-55, hardly a reason for pride, but plenty of time left for a rally.
The second half of Game 2 of this Eastern Conference first-round series was so dramatically different from the first, so stunning because the Celtics defense and energy intensified. They fought on every possession, battled through a plethora of mistakes and unforced errors and overtook their fatigued and discouraged opponent with a stirring fourth-quarter rally.
The reason the Celtics have overtaken the Nets twice now late in fourth quarters is coaching. Ime Udoka is completely winning his coaching duel against Steve Nash, and, after Wednesday’s 114-107 triumph, that much was painfully obvious for Brooklyn faithful.
The perception was Kevin Durant would be brilliant in Game 2 after a rough Game 1. That did not happen. The perception was that Kyrie Irving would continue his extraordinary play from Game 1, sparked by a crowd that began screaming “Kyrie sucks!” 19 seconds into the game. That didn’t happen either.
The Nets were relegated to a hapless and disheveled offense for most of the second half, relying on free throws to score.
After shooting 60 percent in the first half, playing like the offensive juggernaut they have been advertised as all season, the Nets made just 11 shots after halftime, and one of those by Durant and Irving.
Durant missed all 10 of his shots. Irving made one of his seven attempts. A team with NBA Finals aspirations since the day they signed Durant and Irving three years ago are now down 0-2 in the first round, looking completely frazzled at times by the Celtics defense and the daunting environment at TD Garden.
“I think our intensity dropped a little bit in the second half and it made a big difference,” Nash said. “We also had a lot of opportunities we didn’t convert. We made some big strides in the first half. We played a lot better, now we have to sustain it for two halves.”
Nash, considered a gifted basketball mind for his years as a Hall of Fame point guard, made few adjustments in the second half. He simply relied on Durant and Irving to start hitting shots, and they didn’t. He is being completely outcoached in this series by his former assistant, Udoka, who has devised a plan to limit one of the top three scorers on Earth for consecutive games.
Durant reached the free throw line 20 times, scoring 18 of his 27 points in that fashion. But it’s apparent Durant’s offensive success is essential to the Nets’ closing out games, because it appears Nash doesn’t trust his other shooters in crunch time besides Irving.
Goran Dragic and Seth Curry were the primary reasons why the Nets raced to a 17-point lead, 62-45, but neither had much opportunity to make plays in the final quarter. Nash is hoping his stars play like stars for Brooklyn to win and it’s been that way his entire tenure so far.
Udoka appeared confident during the final days of the regular season about this potential matchup. Now we know why.
“Ime knows us really well,” Irving said. “He coached on our staff last year, so I think he has some keys in the treasure chest that he’s telling those guys. We’ve just got to be better moving forward coming out of that halftime when we have the lead against a great team like Boston. We’ve just got to take advantage of it.”
When asked if he needed to go for 30 or 40 points for the Nets to win, Durant said: “Some nights I have to. You just have to be prepared for anything. They’ve been doing a good job of trying to cut off my scoring, trying to limit my shot-making. They’re doing a good job but we’ll figure it out.”
It’s undeniable the Celtics have the coaching advantage in this series. Even when the Celtics played a ragged first half that lacked energy, they executed well enough in the final minutes of the second period to stay close. There is a trust Udoka is going to make the proper and necessary adjustments to give the Celtics a chance to compete.
They went on a 26-14 third-quarter run to even the game at 81 and then ran off a 23-4 surge for a 12-point lead with 2 minutes, 7 seconds left after a Jayson Tatum 3-pointer to beat the shot clock. That sealed the game.
“Most importantly, Ime showed his poise; he didn’t panic,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “Last year that might have been the situation. But Ime didn’t panic but he just stayed with our game plan and made some minor adjustments, but not really. We played aggressive and we settled in a little bit and our role players made some big plays.”
Udoka will be working feverishly over the next 48 hours to ensure the Celtics are completely prepared from the expected onslaught when the Nets return home for the pivotal Game 3. He will never admit it, but likely learned several what to dos and what not to dos during his one season under Nash, and he came to Boston with his own bright ideas about how to lead this franchise.
Nash, on the other hand, will have come up with some better plan than hoping Irving and Durant hit more shots. The Celtics defense is guaranteed to make that endeavor difficult, so another strategy will be required.
“Get back to Brooklyn, take a look at the tape, try to help these guys, help them improve,” Nash said. “Get new ways to attack and come out with some juice on Saturday.”