NEW YORK — The Nets were already teetering, but midway through the fourth quarter Saturday, they were at least clinging to a faint hope. Coach Steve Nash called a timeout with his team trailing by 9 points, and he urged them to do something about it.
When play resumed, Grant Williams instantly came up with a steal and fed Jayson Tatum, who converted a layup as he was fouled by Kevin Durant, whose frustration finally began to boil over. He picked up the ball and spiked it against the basket stanchion, seemingly aware that the end to this game, and perhaps this season, was near.
A few minutes later, some scattered ‘MVP’ chants were directed at Durant as he took free throws. But there was little oomph behind them, and there wasn’t much of a case, either. Soon after, Tatum stood at the line, hundreds of miles and shades of green from home, and received ‘MVP’ chants of his own. They made more sense.
When this series began, there was little doubt that the Celtics had the superior team, but there were questions about whether the Nets had the superior players. So far, Boston has provided loud answers.
The Celtics clawed back from a small early deficit Saturday, pushed back one Nets run after another, and ultimately secured a 109-103 win that gave them a commanding 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven first-round series. Boston will go for the sweep here at the Barclays Center on Monday night.
“I tell the guys all the time in timeouts, especially late in games, my message is nobody plays harder than we do,” Tatum said. “I’m always reminding guys that whoever is on the floor, guys coming off the bench, that’s what I want people to think about, that we’re the hardest playing team in the league 1-15.”
After the final buzzer, as several Celtics stood on the court, smiling and completing some radio and television interviews, the Bob Marley song ‘Three Little Birds’ hummed over the arena’s loudspeakers as fans shuffled up the aisles and into the spring night.
“Don’t worry about a thing, cause every little thing’s gonna be all right.”
For the Nets, though, it’s hard to see how. Aside from Kyrie Irving’s strong Game 1, he and Durant have mostly appeared lost, and the Celtics stars most certainly have not.
On Saturday, Tatum had 39 points, 6 steals and 6 assists, and Jaylen Brown added 23 points. Both players were especially dominant when they needed to be, combining for 23 points on 9 for 14 shooting in the fourth quarter.
Durant and Irving were held to 16 points apiece, and they combined to make just 2 of 5 shots in the fourth. The Nets committed 21 turnovers overall.
“Our activity was great,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Just like we’ve done all series, we want to have bodies in front of bodies, be really physical, and try to get in those passing lanes.”
In addition to shouldering so much responsibility as a scorer, Tatum has served as the primary defender on Durant, and although he has hardly done it himself, he has taken the lead and certainly left him looking confused and frustrated more often than not.
“I think in the NBA, you don’t guard people how they’re playing,” Tatum said. “You guard them on what they’re capable of. So we have to make it tough. We have to show him a crowd. He’s one of the best players of all time.”
In case the rest of the NBA didn’t have enough to worry about regarding this surging Celtics team, Boston also welcomed back starting center Robert Williams on Saturday. The rim-running, shot-swatting big man had 2 points and 2 rebounds in 16 minutes, but the smiles that crept across the faces of his teammates anytime his comeback was mentioned were the better gauges of what this means moving forward.
“If we were going to do anything special this year, this postseason, we definitely need him,” Tatum said.
Added Brown: “Rob looked pretty damn good to me.”
The Celtics fell behind by 7 points in the first quarter, but pushed ahead soon after and led for the game’s final 40 minutes. They never turned it into a blowout, but they fought off each small Nets run with aplomb.
It’s hard to believe this Celtics team once looked lost when trying to close out games. It eventually figured out its fourth quarters, and in this series it has closed games with a flourish. Tatum’s buzzer-beater finished off Game 1, the Nets were held to 17 points in the fourth in Game 2, and on Saturday, Brown and Tatum combined to deliver a crushing blow.
With the Nets’ season slipping away Saturday, Nash took a gamble by turning to veteran forward Blake Griffin late in the third quarter, his first action in nearly a month. Griffin actually made a few hustle plays, hit a pair of 3-pointers, and revved up the crowd. But at the other end of the floor, the Celtics knew Brown had a mismatch, and they punished Brooklyn with it.
With Griffin swiping at him near the top of the key, Brown attacked. In a stretch of less than three minutes, Brown had a layup, a 3-pointer, another layup and a step-back 20-footer, helping stretch a three-point lead to nine.
“You get some matchups and try to be aggressive and take advantage of it,” Brown said. “Let the game come to you.”