NEW YORK — Before each game, after the starting lineups are announced, the Celtics gather in a happy mosh pit and bounce around together on the court. On Tuesday night, center Aron Baynes went over and grabbed Kyrie Irving and made a wild face.
“Chill, chill, chill,” Irving said, smiling.
On Friday night, Baynes inadvertently elbowed Irving in the face, causing a small fracture that forced Irving to miss almost two full games. When he returned Tuesday against the Nets, he was donning a clear plastic mask. Although he was reluctant to wear it and appeared annoyed by it at times, it did not do much to slow him down.
Irving had 25 points and five assists and was serenaded by “MVP” chants in the fourth quarter of Boston’s 109-102 win, its 13th in a row.
“This is my best start of the season and I’m pretty sure that some of the guys on the team, it’s their best start of the season,” Irving said. “I think we’re just enjoying every moment that we have with one another and getting the chance to continuously get better. I think that’s the innocence in our team now.”
The Celtics will now return home to face the world champion Warriors on Thursday in what will be one of the most highly anticipated games of this young season. The scoreboard at the Barclays Center was still glowing Tuesday as the attention quickly shifted away from this game and toward that one.
Irving faced the Warriors in the Finals in each of the last three seasons when he was a member of the Cavaliers, so he is as familiar with them as anyone.
“Now comes the whole media frenzy of ‘Will the streak end?’ and ‘What’s going to happen on Thursday when the Golden State Warriors come to Boston?’ ” Irving said with a chuckle. “So I’m looking forward to all that hoopla.”
There were some suggestions after the game that perhaps the fast-paced Nets would provide an early chance to get familiar with the fast-paced Warriors, but the truth is that there really are no fair comparisons with the Warriors — especially not the Nets.
“We just have to play really solid on both ends and do what we do as well as we can and see where we stand,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Obviously, they’re outstanding.”
There were times when it looked as if that matchup might lose some of its shine, as the pesky Nets consistently responded to Celtics runs with spurts of their own. But in the end, they were overmatched.
Marcus Morris had 21 points and 10 rebounds and Al Horford added 17 and 11 for Boston, and the Celtics needed these big contributions from their starters on a night the bench made just 4 of 26 shots.
Most of the buzz leading up to the game surrounded Irving and his headgear. In 2012, he wore a black mask in a game against the Knicks after breaking a bone in his jaw, and he torched New York for 41 points before switching to a clear mask — the NBA’s preference — for the next few weeks.
He said that Tuesday his teammates and even fans were peppering him with questions about whether he would unveil a black mask once more. And he told his teammates they wouldn’t like that, because when he wore the black mask his peripheral vision was almost nonexistent, and all he could see was the basket. That meant that passes would be at a premium.
The clear mask, while less intimidating and just mildly more practical, at least offered a few more options.
“It’s almost like having somewhat foggy blinders on,” Irving said. “When I take off the mask, I can see everything, and when I have the mask on, I’m really dialed into what’s in front of me.”
Irving missed his first two shots while wearing the mask Tuesday, but his teammates started the game by hitting five in a row. With 7:53 left Irving hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and Jayson Tatum (19 points) added one 38 seconds later that gave the Celtics their largest lead, 17-4.
But these Nets do not crumble quite as easily as some of the Brooklyn teams that preceded them. Midway through the second quarter they uncorked an impressive 14-0 run that was capped with a DeMarre Carroll 3-pointer that gave the Nets their largest lead of the half, 43-37. The score was tied at 52 at halftime.
“[The lead] went quick,” Stevens said, “which, if you watch these guys play, that happens all the time.”
With 6:37 left in the third quarter a Spencer Dinwiddie layup gave Brooklyn a 65-61 lead, but then the Celtics finally found their rhythm and put together a 19-2 run that was guided by their starters. Horford, who attempted just five shots in the first half, made a layup, a floater, and a 3 during the burst, helping Boston stretch its advantage to 80-67.
Once again, however, the Nets clawed back against Boston’s second unit. Joe Harris hit back-to-back 3s in a 14-2 run that was capped by a wild Caris LeVert layup that pulled Brooklyn within 82-81.
Stevens called timeout with 9:54 left and inserted Shane Larkin for the first time. Larkin has thrived in minor roles this season, particularly when called into tense situations like this one. Stevens admires his ability to pressure the ball and get a team’s offense out of rhythm, and he helped do just that. The Nets were helds scoreless for 3:55 after Larkin checked in, as the Celtics went on a 10-0 run that was capped by a Larkin steal and layup that made it 92-81.
“I thought, even on their actions where they were just simply coming off down-screens, the passer felt more pressure with him in the game,” Stevens said. “So it pushed everything out and so the shot wasn’t quite as easy.”
Brooklyn pulled within 95-91 with back-to-back 3-pointers by Allen Crabbe, but then Irving gave the Celtics the cushion they needed, hitting a 22-footer and an acrobatic, driving layup.
There were plenty of Celtics fans at this game, and their MVP chants poured down on Irving when he went to the free throw line to close out the game. After the final buzzer, the point guard was happy to remove the mask and give it to the team’s training staff, which tucked it away for a trip to Boston, where Golden State will soon be waiting.