The Celtics were cruising along against the Nets on Tuesday, comfortably ahead by 21 points in the third quarter and still had a seemingly insurmountable 13-point edge with 4:06 left.
Boston was hampered by injuries, illnesses, and minutes restrictions down the stretch. But the Celtics really were crushed by an incredible performance by Nets guard Caris LeVert, who dismantled Boston from all angles as his team stormed back for a 129-120 overtime win.
LeVert, who finished with 51 points — 37 after the start of the fourth quarter, an all 11 of the Nets’ points in overtime.
The Nets erupted for 51 points in that final period, the final 3 coming from LeVert at the foul line with 0.2 seconds remaining.
In one particularly monstrous stretch, LeVert drilled three 3-pointers in a span of less than 90 seconds, the last pulling the Nets within 104-100 with 2:45 left. He hit another 3 with 1:31 remaining that made it 110-108, but at the other end Kemba Walker found Robert Williams — playing his first game since Dec. 6 — for a dunk as he was fouled.
Still, Brooklyn was not finished. After a DeAndre Jordan dunk made it 118-115 with 6.7 seconds left, the Nets forced a tie-up and won the ensuing jump ball at midcourt before calling timeout with 1.4 seconds remaining.
The inbounds pass came to LeVert, who was triple-teamed and fouled by Marcus Smart with 0.2 second remaining.
At the start of overtime, Walker, returning after missing five games with knee soreness, had reached his minutes limit and was unavailable. Gordon Hayward had departed with a knee contusion at halftime. Jaylen Brown had gone to the locker room for an undisclosed issue. And then with 3:42 left in OT, Smart fouled out when he charged into DeAndre Jordan.
So Boston was left with a lineup that looked more fit for a preseason game, featuring Daniel Theis, Brad Wanamaker, Carsen Edwards, Semi Ojeleye, and Javonte Green.
The Nets still had LeVert, and that was more than enough.
Other observations from the game:
■ Walker returned after missing five games to manage his left knee soreness. It was clear that he was a bit rusty and trying to regain his rhythm offensively, but this was the perfect game for that. The good news for the Celtics was that even though Walker missed a few more shots than usual, he looked spry and was moving quite well on that troublesome knee.
He was on the bench for the first eight minutes of the third quarter, first getting stretched out by a member of the team’s training staff before having the knee wrapped. But then he re-entered the game at the four-minute mark. He is not expected to play against the Cavaliers on Wednesday.
■ Williams checked in with 6:40 left in the first quarter, his first appearance since being sidelined with a hip edema Dec. 6. He was expected to have his playing time extremely limited, but he had a nice tip-in just 21 seconds after checking in. He played three first-half minutes and checked back in midway through the fourth quarter. After missing a pair of free throws, the Nets intentionally fouled him after slicing the deficit to 7 points, but he calmly hit them both this time.
■ With Jayson Tatum (illness) out, Walker and Williams both limited, coach Brad Stevens used the game as an opportunity to dust off some players who had fallen out of the rotation. Javonte Green and Carsen Edwards both had lengthy first-half stints. Green had four first-half rebounds and Edwards his a pair of 3-poitners, his first since late January. Green started the second half in place of Hayward, too. But neither player probably expected to be called upon to win an overtime game.
■ With 6:55 left in the first quarter, Nets center Jarrett Allen had an opening for a big two-handed slam. Most defenders in this situation — particularly smaller ones — just yield and move on to the next play. But Smart is not most players. He rose, met Allen in midair, and blocked his shot at the rim. As the crowd roared, Smart offered a Dikembe Mutombo figure wag while he ran upcourt.
■ The Nets had the body language of a defeated team for three quarters. They entered the night riding a four-game losing streak that included setbacks against the Hawks, Wizards, and Magic, all teams with losing records. And while LeVert will get his deserved credit for his scorching scoring spree, two-way contract player Chris Chiozza (8 points, 4 assists) truly changed the flow of the game for Brooklyn in the second half..