BOSTON – What a way to lose a game.
After the Nets came back from down 15 to take a three-point lead with under a minute to go in the fourth quarter, and after Kyrie Irving carried the weight of an entire franchise on his shoulders with a masterful performance against his old team, Celtics star Jayson Tatum beat the buzzer with a whirling layup on the final possession of the fourth quarter to seal a 115-114 victory over the Nets in Game 1.
Kevin Durant’s look and feel of dejection said all the words he couldn’t muster after a particularly poor performance of his own.
“I had the most turnovers, six of them,” he said, shaking his head. “They beat us by one point. It’s just a tough loss, man, it’s hard to just pinpoint one thing.”
Celtics big man Al Horford grabbed a rebound off a Durant miss — one of 15 in a miserable, 9-of-24 shooting night for Hall of Fame-bound scorer — and got the ball to Jaylen Brown, who pushed the ball up the right side of the floor, then drove baseline, collapsing the Nets’ defense.
Irving said he thought Brown was going to shoot while under the basket. Instead Brown kept his dribble alive and found Marcus Smart on the wing, where two defenders rushed to close out on the three.
Smart head-faked, getting both Nets defenders into the air, then got into the lane, where Tatum made a sharp cut to the basket.
“I was left with two guys on the back side,” Irving recalled postgame. “So I had to make a choice.”
He chose to defend Tatum, who received the ball then immediately spun around Irving and laid the ball in just milliseconds before the final buzzer sounded.
“(It stings) a lot,” veteran guard Goran Dragic said postgame. “You know we went up three points…what 35, 40 seconds left of the game? … Hell of a play from Tatum. Just to be aware to spin and lay it up was tough.”
And now, the Celtics lead the first-round series, 1-0, after the Nets looked like they were in position to steal Game 1 before the tide turned late in the fourth.
Irving scored 39 points on 12-of-20 shooting from the field and carried the load while Durant turned in one of his worst performances since returning from a sprained MCL that derailed his season. The Nets, a team built largely on starpower even after the James Harden deal, missed a standout performance from their superstar forward.
“They did a good job of forcing me away and then helping in the paint,” Durant said after the game. “I just gotta be more fundamental in my moves. I feel like some shots went in and out for me today, but I played fast and turned the ball over. I’ve just got to slow down and play my game, but they did a good job of making me see bodies.”
Yet the Nets still had a chance, even after blowing the opening minutes of the third quarter and allowing the Celtics to take control of the game. And even after an uncharacteristic poor shooting performance from a player with four NBA scoring titles who was on pace for a fifth before the MCL sprain rendered him ineligible for the honor because he didn’t meet the criteria for games played in a season. If the Nets want to right their wrongs for Game 2, they can’t lose focus like they did at the top of the third quarter.
Good teams make you pay for unforced errors, and great teams put you in debt, which is where the Nets found themselves after a flurry of turnovers and forfeited offensive rebounds that gave the Celtics momentum to start the third quarter.
The Celitcs went on an 11-2 run to punch their way to a 15-point third quarter lead. The Nets spent much of the remainder of the game digging themselves out of that hole.
“Just a lack of focus on our end,” said Irving. “(Historically) they really come out in the third quarter and try to put their stamp on the game, create that separation, that way they can just pace out the game. So moving forward, we just gotta be aware of that when we’re coming out in the third quarter, we’re really just gonna put the foot on the gas pedal and just be aware.”
The Nets punched back with a 15-2 start to the fourth period, but the basketball gods have a way of laughing last. The Nets cheated the game by coming out undisciplined and unfocused to start the second half. And they gave an already hostile fanbase fuel when Bruce Brown said without forward Robert Wlliams — a Defensive Player of the Year candidate nursing a knee injury — the Nets would attack Al Horford and Daniel Theis.
Horford responded by “My stuff gets done on the court,” then finished Game 1 with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Brown’s words were shown on the TD Garden jumbotron and booed pregame, and he ultimately finished with five points in 37 minutes.
And yet this series is far from over. It’s unlikely Durant has another uncharacteristically poor shooting night, and despite his struggles, the Nets nearly stole Game 1 from the Celtics. The task at hand is now finishing business in Game 2.
“Nothing to overthink with Kevin Durant,” Irving said postgame. “We know who he is. We know he’s going to go back and watch film, prepare.”
“He was doing all the little things and we know how high his expectations are for himself. So we’re not going to overthink it. But we definitely gotta look ourselves in the mirror as a team and see where we can control the little things, the little details that help us be able to close out the game. I feel like we had the game in control and then a final second shot beats us and now we’re sitting here asking questions about hostility and s—.”