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With new game plan, Celtics flip the script on Nets

Jared Sullinger showed good hustle in beating the Nets’ Willie Reed to this ball on the floor.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

NEW YORK — The Celtics gathered for their pregame shootaround on Monday morning at Baruch College, which sits amid the bustle of lower Manhattan, on 24th Street and Lexington Avenue.

They started the session by setting up four folding chairs and doing some shooting drills in which players dribbled past the chairs and to the rim, and the chairs weren’t very efficient defenders. Then, when the brief practice in the nondescript gym was closed to the media, it took on a singular focus.

“We just talked about getting into the paint, getting into the paint, getting into the paint,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, repeating the point for emphasis.


In a disheartening loss to the Nets in Boston on Saturday, the Celtics had hoisted 32 3-pointers and been mostly manhandled in the interior by Brooklyn center Brook Lopez. On Monday, they reclaimed that space, as they lowered their heads and pushed their way inside time and again, ultimately surging to a 103-94 win.

“It worked out for us,” forward Jae Crowder said, adding, “Put pressure on those guys in the interior. Coach preached inside-out, and it really seemed to work.”

Guard Avery Bradley missed the game because of a sore left hip and was replaced in the starting lineup by Evan Turner. Also, Kelly Olynyk entered the starting lineup in place of forward Jared Sullinger. The presence of Olynyk, a dangerous 3-point shooter, opened noticeable driving lanes. And Turner is a more physical penetrator than Bradley, so the Celtics attacked.

“I think we got them moving a little bit,” Turner said, “and we were able to get in the paint.”

For the Celtics, Monday’s win was helpful but hardly momentous. A loss, meanwhile, could have been rather devastating. They’d entered a promising three-game stretch that included one game against the Lakers and two against Brooklyn, teams that are no threat to even challenge for the playoffs. Then they lost the first two games, and promise transformed into concern.


The Celtics arrived at Barclays Center facing a possibility that once seemed unfathomable: a three-game sweep against some of the dregs of the league. But calamity was avoided.

“If you want to be a really good team in this league, there comes a time when you’ve got to put the ball in the basket,” Stevens said, “so I thought we executed pretty well. But I thought we also played pretty confidently, which is good coming off those two games.”

Five players scored at least 12 points for the Celtics. Boston committed just seven turnovers and held the Nets to 37.6 percent shooting from the field. Crowder had a game-high 25 points, 6 coming in the game’s final minutes, after the Nets had trimmed what was once a 19-point deficit to just 5.

“We knew if we got the shots,” Crowder said, “we could make them pay.”

For the Celtics, of course, this game took on a bit more significance than a regular game against a lowly team might, as Boston will receive the Nets’ first-round draft pick at season’s end. One loss to Brooklyn would not have been seismic, but the Nets, who entered the night with just 10 wins all season, had a chance to win the season series against the Celtics, 3-1.

Lopez dominated on Saturday, erupting for 30 points and 13 rebounds. But Stevens said that after reviewing film, he did not find major faults in how his players had defended Lopez.


Nevertheless, the Celtics did not let the lumbering center dominate at the start on Monday. His long, difficult fadeaway jump shots seemed to be coming from an even greater distance with even more resistance. He attempted just five shots in the first half and scored 4 points before finishing the game with 19.

“Some of the shots that went in last game that might have been a 30 percent chance of making didn’t go in tonight,” Turner said. “Tyler Zeller came in and did great. I think we sent a lot of big men out there to kind of tire him out.’

The Celtics set the tone quickly and emphatically. They forced eight turnovers in the opening quarter and raced out on fast breaks and scored 10 points off of Brooklyn’s miscues.

Sullinger has been scuffling recently, but he came off the bench in the first quarter and provided a quick spark, scoring 7 points in the final 1:28, including a deep 3-pointer that gave the Celtics a 37-22 lead.

“I was in my groove a little bit,” Sullinger said.

Back-to-back baskets by Zeller gave the Celtics their largest lead, 43-24, with 7:18 left in the second period, and Boston was ahead, 56-42, at halftime.

In the fourth quarter, however, the Nets were resilient. With three minutes left, Joe Johnson made an 8-foot baseline floater to bring his team within 90-85.


After a timeout, though, Crowder drilled a 3-pointer from the right arc to stretch the lead back to 8 points. Then with 1:29 left, he drove the left baseline and finished a difficult shot as he was fouled, ultimately making it 98-89. The Celtics held on and averted disaster, and now they are hopeful that this could be the start of a new surge.

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Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.