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NEW YORK — The offensive struggle was real without Isaiah Thomas, even against the lowly Brooklyn Nets on Friday at Barclays Center.

Thomas, back at home in Boston nursing a bone bruise in his right knee, must have cringed on several occasions watching the offense grind against the league’s worst team. Boston shot 36.4 percent in the first half, including a combined 4-for-17 shooting from Al Horford and Marcus Smart.

Jumpers were clanging off the rim. Layups were being missed. The Celtics were swinging the ball to each other, looking for a dependable scorer and finally, in the second half, one emerged.

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There have been nights when Jae Crowder has been content to be a secondary scorer. He had not scored in double figures in the previous five games, but when the Celtics needed a closing performance to avoid an embarrassing loss to the downtrodden Nets, Crowder stepped to the forefront.

Crowder scored 17 of his season-high 24 points in the second half and 9 in the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ 98-95 win. The Nets actually had two chances to send the game into overtime but Brook Lopez and Quincy Acy missed 3-pointers in the final nine seconds.

Brooklyn (13-55) still hasn’t won consecutive games all season.

Crowder changed the game with a pair of 3-point plays. He drained a 3-pointer after Horford sucked in the defense in the post and dished out for an 88-85 lead with 3:36 left. Following a Nets miss, Horford rebounded a Terry Rozier 3-point miss and fed a streaking Crowder for a one-handed jam and foul. Crowder then walked behind the basket and flexed his muscles.

“It’s time to win the game,” Crowder said. “I remember when they went on a run and hit a couple of threes in a row, we came together and said ‘it’s time to win now, it’s time to make winning plays and we got to do it together.’ And from that point on we had control of the game.”

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Without Thomas and his 29 points and 19.6 shots per game, the Celtics had to find offense from other sources. When asked the difference between playing with Thomas and without him, Crowder was brutally honest.

“A lot more shot opportunities, for real, seriously,” Crowder said. “A lot of opportunities through our offense. We run a lot of stuff for him, so a lot of guys were getting a lot of looks that they probably wasn’t used to getting, so that was probably the biggest adjustment.”

Four Celtics attempted 11 or more shots, while Gerald Green and Rozier each attempted eight, although Rozier missed all eight of his. The problem wasn’t ball distribution until the final minutes, it was simple offensive execution. The Celtics were 7 for 29 from the 3-point line — 3 for 22 besides Crowder — and that lack of offensive punch kept Brooklyn close.

What’s more, the Nets drained three 3-pointers in the first 88 seconds of the fourth quarter to take a 74-71 lead and the Celtics were in serious jeopardy of another demoralizing loss (see: Phoenix). The Celtics responded to retake the lead again but the Nets evened the game three times, including a Quincy Acy jumper to tie the score at 85, setting up Crowder’s barrage.

“I mean obviously Isaiah does so much for us offensively and [Friday] we had to find new ways,” said Horford, who finished with 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists. “I felt like Jae Crowder answered the call and different guys — Gerald Green, Avery Bradley — stepped up at different times and we got it done by committee.”

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Green, who has the ability to produce despite long stretches on the bench, had played in just two of the past 11 games because of a heel injury and coaches’ decisions. Yet, he scored 11 points in 17 minutes and also played strong defense.

“We started making shots and plays late and we started executing late,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I didn’t think we were crisp on the [offensive] end of the floor but that happens. I thought Gerald Green’s lift off the bench was the key to the game for us. We needed something to do in from the bench especially.

“It’s been tough since the All-Star break being out with the heel injury and being out for a few games. And whenever you get back healthy, it limits opportunities for guys that may have played a little bit more. But he’s just kind of stayed ready.”

The storyline between these two teams has always centered around the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade that is still reaping benefits for the Celtics. The Nets are headed toward the league’s worst record and Boston has the right to swap picks with Brooklyn in June’s draft. The Nets have been playing with a bunch of journeyman and castoffs and it showed Friday.

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Besides veteran Lopez, who finished with 23 points on 8-for-18 shooting, the rest of the Nets were 22-for-65 shooting and the group looked disheveled at times. Yet, they kept hanging around, and had a chance to tie when Bradley missed one of two free throws to keep the Celtics’ lead at 3.

The defense rebounded by blitzing Lopez on a contested 3-pointer while Jeremy Lin rebounded the miss and fed Acy, who missed near the buzzer. The Celtics walked away relieved.

“I think we did a good job of not trying to play down to Brooklyn’s record,” Smart said. “Brooklyn’s a good team, their record says otherwise but they’re capable of beating anybody. If you play their record, you’re probably going to get beat.”


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.