Late in the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ game against the Nets on Tuesday, TD Garden appeared to be more than one-third empty. It was not because the fans were disgusted by Boston’s play. It was because a win seemed wrapped up, and sometimes people like to beat traffic or go home to get a bit more sleep before when the night seems over.
The problem was that it was not. The problem was that the Celtics’ list of available players was quickly shrinking. The problem was that the Nets had Caris LeVert.
By the time it was over, by the time an unfathomable sequence of events had been distilled down to a stunning end, the Nets had charged back from a 13-point deficit with just over four minutes remaining in regulation and stormed to a 129-120 overtime win that left the remaining fans dazed.
“I think that this is an anomaly, but nonetheless, it was a very humbling one,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But that was ridiculous.”
LeVert finished with 51 points, 37 of which came after the start of the fourth quarter. And in that final period of regulation, the Nets guard was hardly acting alone. Brooklyn made 15 of 23 shots, 6 of 12 3-pointers, and 15 of 18 free throws en route to a 51-point period. It was the second-highest total a Celtics team has ever allowed in a quarter.
To finish off this impossible win, the Nets needed a long series of plays to unfold almost perfectly, and that never really happens in a game that involves a bouncing ball.
But on this night, it did.
To understand the meltdown, it’s best to start when everything was fine for Boston, when it looked like a feel-good win was on the way, and fans were passing the time until the final buzzer by chanting, “Where is Kyrie?”
Former Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving was back in New York after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, and the fans’ apparent schadenfreude would not last long.
The Celtics led by as many as 21 points in the third quarter, and a Jaylen Brown layup with 4:14 remaining still left them with a 104-91 lead. According to ESPN’s win probability metric, the Celtics had a 99 percent chance to win the game at that point.
Then LeVert drilled three 3-pointers in less than 90 seconds, the last pulling the Nets within 104-100 with 2:45 left.
“We didn’t have any defensive intensity,” Stevens said. “I should have subbed a couple of guys out that normally play, and I just kept them in.”
The Nets kept lingering, and a DeAndre Jordan dunk with 6.7 seconds left pulled them within 118-115. Still, their odds remained quite long.
Then after a timeout, Brooklyn’s Rodions Kurucs swooped in and tied up Kemba Walker, forcing a jump ball. The 6-foot-9-inch Kurucs won the tip against the 5-11 Walker, and, for a moment, it looked as if Brooklyn’s Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot would try to tie the game in a scattered situation. But the Nets bench called timeout with 1.4 seconds left, giving them a chance to get the ball to the scalding-hot LeVert.
When he caught an inbounds pass beyond the left arc, he was swarmed by Robert Williams, Daniel Theis, and Marcus Smart. The Celtics knew there was no time for him to pass to someone else, so they sent a brigade.
But as LeVert rose, Smart reached in and fouled him with 0.2 seconds left. LeVert made all three free throws to force overtime.
By that point, the Celtics were considerably undermanned. Jayson Tatum missed the game because of an illness. Gordon Hayward missed the entire second half because of a knee contusion. Walker, playing his first game back after missing five because of knee soreness, had reached his minutes limit and was not available. Brown had suffered a hamstring injury at the end of regulation. And then Smart fouled out just over a minute into overtime when he charged into Jordan.
That left Boston with a lineup that looked more fit for summer league, and it never had a chance against LeVert, who attacked and made four consecutive shots over the first 2:20 of the extra session and scored all 11 Brooklyn points, while Boston managed just 2.
“I guess if you’re in this game long enough you’ll see it at some point,” Stevens said. “And we saw it tonight.”
Afterward, Walker said the good news was that the Celtics would have a quick chance to move on when they face the Cavaliers on Wednesday. But it’s unclear what kind of roster will be available.
Walker will sit out because it is the second game in as many nights, Hayward said he expects to be sidelined, Brown did not speak to reporters after the game but was seen limping out of the locker room, and Smart could potentially be facing a suspension for angrily confronting two officials after the game.
“I have no idea who’s going to Cleveland,” Stevens said. “I think most of the coaches are going. I just want eight guys, nine guys, whoever’s going to play hard, let’s go. Like, that was ridiculous.”