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The Celtics had new life after an impressive Game 3 victory and a raucous, full-capacity TD Garden crowd ready to explode at every opportunity.
The Nets, meanwhile, had Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. On Sunday, that was good for a 141-126 victory and a commanding 3-1 series lead heading back to Brooklyn.
Here’s what transpired.
Buoyed by a boisterous crowd, the Celtics started strong and jumped out to an early lead. At one point, Jayson Tatum buried a corner 3-pointer with a huge grin as the arena erupted to a decibel level that hadn’t been reached since March 2020.
Then reality set in. Without Robert Williams and Kemba Walker, the Celtics simply didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep pace with the Nets, especially as Kyrie Irving found his footing against a hostile Boston crowd. The Nets built a 13-point halftime lead, which expanded to 20 quickly in the third quarter. The Garden erupted when Aaron Nesmith buried a 3-pointer to end the period and again when the Celtics trimmed a big lead down to 18 in the fourth quarter, but the Nets’ offensive onslaught was too much down the stretch.
Kevin Durant – 42 points, 14-for-20 shooting, five assists, four rebounds.
Durant punished everyone the Celtics sent at him and opened the game up for his similarly talented teammates. Without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have no one who can credibly defend Durant 1-on-1 for an extended stretch (although Jabari Parker deserves some credit for gamely trying on multiple occasions in this series).
The Celtics will take on the Nets with their season on the line in Brooklyn on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether Walker or Williams will be available, but the Nets seem to have a clear game plan going forward, an otherworldly collection of offensive talent, and plenty of reason to finish the series in Brooklyn.
“We know how these people here are in Boston,” Kevin Durant said after the game. “And we know how passionate they are about Kyrie in particular, and they still upset at him. That’s no reason for them to act childish.
“But we don’t need to speak on that. We know what it is already coming in here. Glad we got the W. Hopefully we don’t got to come back here this year.”
1. The Nets are inconsistent, occasionally porous on the defensive end, and an absolutely dominant offensive team when all three of their stars are clicking. Durant is one of the most unstoppable scorers in NBA history, and he put up points seemingly at will over Celtics defenders — even Tatum struggled to contain him. Irving looked like himself again and even gave Celtics fans a stern glare at one point in the fourth quarter. He was booed enthusiastically, which didn’t stop him from scoring 39 points on 24 shots. Harden only took 12 shots, but he made eight of them and dished out 18 assists.
The Nets aren’t guaranteed a run to the Finals, but they have plenty of firepower to make it happen.
2. Without Walker and Williams, the Celtics simply didn’t have enough for the Nets offensively. Tatum played 40 minutes, and every time he sat, the Nets went on a run. Evan Fournier and Marcus Smart (16 points apiece) pitched in, but the Celtics’ bench was too shallow and their injury list was too extensive.
3. Tatum was excellent once again, despite the overwhelming amount of attention Brooklyn sent at him defensively. He finished with 40 points on 10-for-22 shooting and made all 17 of his free-throw attempts.
One of the most impressive aspects of Tatum’s development this season was his refusal to be slowed on the offensive end. On Sunday, most of his offense was difficult, but he still worked his way to the free throw line and forced the officials to make decisions.
“We expect him to be great but he’s surpassing and going even higher,” Marcus Smart said. “So you tip your hat to that man, a young fellow doing his thing.”
4. The Celtics struggled to support Tatum offensively, but Aaron Nesmith spaced the floor well, showing some flashes in his first extended run of the series. Nesmith finished with 11 points on 3-for-5 shooting from three and mixed it up briefly with James Harden late in the fourth quarter. Payton Pritchard was solid as well — 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting.
One glimmer of hope from a difficult season: Both of the Celtics’ rookies look like contributors next year.
“Those are valuable experiences,” Stevens said. “I felt like we showed our age some, but I also thought those guys did a lot of good things. So we’ll look at it, figure out how we can all be a little bit better.”
5. Say what you want about the Celtics’ effort throughout the season — some of it is deserved, some of it less so. But missing three players in their starting lineup on Sunday and facing a motivated Nets team with three future first-ballot Hall of Famers, the Celtics played hard. Even after the Nets broke the game open, the Celtics refused to let things get out of hand.
“I don’t have any issues at all with our approach, our effort,” Stevens said. “Again, we got a little haphazard defensively, and that’s the part that we can control, that we need to clean up and do better. And again, there are some individual tendencies that we need to do a better job of and all that stuff, but the effort was good, all the way through.”
Moral victories count for virtually nothing in the regular season, and they count for even less in the playoffs, except that the severely overmatched (and outplayed) Celtics simply wouldn’t go away, and Celtics fans seemed to appreciate the effort.
Still, Stevens was left wishing for a little more.
“The idea of being a part of a community, and a community watching a basketball game together, and especially here, I wish we could have had a better shot at the end,” Stevens said. “Because I think that this place obviously wanted to blow the lid off.”
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