NEW YORK — The Celtics left Barclays Center simply frustrated, unable to compile enough positive plays to overcome a game-long deficit, unable to get a key defensive stop or chase down a key loose ball.
They tried getting by on talent Friday afternoon. They couldn’t, and they were handed their third loss in five games, this one to the Brooklyn Nets, 112-107.
Kyrie Irving was sitting in street clothes on the Nets bench, watching along with fellow injured teammate Kevin Durant, but the Celtics were overwhelmed by Irving’s replacement, Spencer Dinwiddie, who scored 32 points, including 11 in a row in the third quarter.
Kemba Walker, coming off his 39-point performance against Brooklyn Wednesday, finished with just 17 on 6-for-19 shooting in his return to his native New York. His struggles typified those of his team, as the Celtics were a step slow all afternoon, committing a season-high 19 turnovers and bumbling chances to draw close in the second half.
In one sequence, the Celtics were looking to cut into an 8-point deficit when Jayson Tatum dribbled to penetrate, but rookie Grant Williams ran into Dinwiddie trying to clear space and was called for the charge.
Later in the fourth quarter, with the Celtics down 6, Tatum flipped a pass in the key to an open Robert Williams, but he wasn’t ready and fumbled the ball away. That led to a back-breaking Taurean Prince three.
The Celtics defended well in the final 40 seconds, down by 4, only to have Joe Harris bull through two defenders and find an open Jarrett Allen for a dunk as the shot clock expired.
The Celtics easily could have complained about the officiating or the noon start, but they blamed themselves. Late in the fourth quarter, Walker drove the lane for a layup, and thought he drew enough contact on Allen for a foul. After the no-call, Walker punched the air vigorously in frustration.
“[The official] told me I initiated all the contact; he was probably right,” Walker said. “It was on us. It was a frustrating game. My shots wouldn’t go down. They played well and we didn’t match their intensity early.”
Two days after overcoming the Nets in the second half with strong defense, the Celtics couldn’t contain Dinwiddie or Allen, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds and whose dominance led Celtics coach Brad Stevens to bench Daniel Theis after the opening minute of the second half.
The Celtics again allowed Brooklyn to jump out early with 3-pointers — 11 in the first half — but this time the Nets staved off Boston’s second-half rallies.
Offensively, the Celtics missed several open shots. Walker and Marcus Smart were a combined 10 for 32, including 2 for 14 on 3-point attempts. Jaylen Brown attempted just eight shots in his 34 minutes, and was a minus-21. Tatum scored 18 in the first half, but just 8 in the second.
The Celtics came off their Western trip encouraged by difficult losses to the Nuggets and Clippers, but there was little encouragement from this defeat. It was the first real clunker since the opening night loss to the 76ers.
“We did it to ourselves,” Smart said. “We let them come out hot early, and the more aggressive team won and set the rules and that’s what happened. We’ve got to start off better. We weren’t as urgent as we were [Wednesday].”
The Celtics fell behind, 12-4; slow starts have been an Achilles’ heel in an otherwise promising beginning to the season. They have been forced to rally for many of their wins. They actually led briefly in the second period and cut the deficit to 3 in the third quarter, but then needed to be near-perfect down the stretch — and weren’t.
“We’re just slow and got to pick it up,” Smart said. “There’s no scientific reason, no equation for it, no X’s and O’s for it. It’s just we’ve got to come out better. We tried to turn it on too late and it burned us again. It’s real simple, just go out and play harder from the start.”
On the struggles defending the 3-pointer, Smart said: “It starts with me, and I played like [expletive] today, and [Wednesday] but lucked up. Today, it burned us. I’ve got to do a better job of getting my team ready and setting the tone on both ends of the court.”
Afterward, Irving walked on the floor and hugged Tatum, Smart, and a few Celtics officials. The teams don’t meet again until March 3 in Boston, and Smart told reporters he was tired of fielding Irving questions about last season.
Stevens felt the same way.
“We put it behind us in June,” the coach said. “I’ve said it many times. He had a right to go where he wanted to go. He’s a great player. We did that [moving on] a long, long time ago. I realize it’s always going to be a story, but it’s not a story to us.”