NEW YORK — As the regular season neared its end, Celtics coach Ime Udoka realized his team could have a chance to set up its preferred first-round playoff matchup. And around the league, the prevailing sentiment was that it would probably be wise to avoid Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Nets if there was a chance.
But Udoka found that suggestion ridiculous. Securing the No. 2 seed would guarantee homecourt advantage in the conference semifinals. Brooklyn had flaws. And, most of all, the first-year coach had no plans to hide from anyone.
This view would be flimsy if his players didn’t share it. In various discussions over the course of several days, the response was unanimous.
“He kind of set the tone from the jump how he felt about it,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “But it was pretty cool for a coach to include us as a unit in that decision-making. We all came to the conclusion that, like, look, man, if we want to do something special, ain’t no shortcuts, ain’t no trying to manipulate, or ducking.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to take the hard way, or what’s perceived to be that way, and let the chips fall where they may.”
So the Celtics pummeled the Grizzlies on the final day of the regular season, aware it would lead them to Brooklyn. And on Monday night they provided more evidence that they were the team to fear, as they completed a four-game sweep with a wire-to-wire, 116-112 victory over the Nets.
Impressively, the win was finalized with Jayson Tatum on the bench for nearly three minutes after fouling out.
“We’re not going to run from anybody,” Udoka said.
The defending champion Bucks took a different approach, electing to sit their top players in their finale against the Cavaliers, making it clear they valued avoiding the Nets more than guaranteeing home-court advantage in the conference semifinals.
Now, the Celtics have flicked away Brooklyn, and the Bucks are still playing against the Bulls, bringing a 3-1 lead into Wednesday’s Game 5.
The Celtics, meanwhile, will get nearly a week (at minimum) to rest and recover after a series that was challenging and demanding despite its brevity. Boston won the four games by a combined total of just 18 points, the third closest sweep in league history.
It was also the only first-round sweep in the NBA this season, perhaps strengthening this team’s case as true title contenders. But afterward, guard Marcus Smart did not lean into that possibility. He does not want this team to have a reason to let up.
“I definitely have seen the other series and, for me, I think that we are not the best team, " he said. “We still have some ways to go. We still have work.”
Earlier this season, when even reaching the playoffs was far from certain, the Celtics constantly stumbled late in close games. They remedied that issue as time passed, and this series was the best indicator of their closing mettle. Particularly Game 4.
Tatum was on the verge of punting the Nets into their summer when he had a hot start to the fourth quarter. But he picked up his fifth foul soon after, then fouled out on an offensive foul with 2 minutes, 48 seconds left and his team leading by six points.
Emboldened, the Nets quickly pulled within 1 and put a jolt into a relatively sleepy playoff crowd at the Barclays Center. Then, with Tatum watching from the bench, his teammates picked him up.
“I had all the faith in the world that they were going to close out the game,” he said.
After a 14-footer by Durant pulled Brooklyn within 109-108 with 1:28 left, Brown answered with a layup.
He had a chance to extend the lead but missed a jumper with 28 seconds left and Durant secured the rebound. He was fouled by Smart, but made just 1 of 2 free throws, and the Celtics countered quickly, with Brown finding Smart for a layup that missed. That could have been disastrous, but Al Horford swooped in and converted a putback that made it 113-109 with just 13.7 seconds remaining.
Tatum finished with 29 points, Brown scored 22, and Smart added 20 points and 11 assists. Durant had 39 points to lead Brooklyn, but this series will be remembered for the way Boston’s defense made everything a chore for one of the greatest scorers in this game’s history.
The Celtics brushed off the notion that this was a Tatum vs. Durant duel, but there is no denying that Tatum took the next step in his ascension to superstardom in this series.
“I have the utmost respect for KD, and what he’s brought to the game and accomplished,” Tatum said. “Somebody like that, he brought the best out of me. I knew I had to be on the top of my game in this series. I’m not surprised by how I played. I do feel like I’m one of the best players. That’s how I approach the game, regardless of who’s on the other team.”
When the final buzzer sounded, Durant — who has publicly heaped praise on Tatum — sought him out near Boston’s bench and locked him in a long embrace. Moments later, Tatum walked back toward his team’s tunnel with both arms raised, both index fingers pointing to the sky.