Celtics

4 takeaways as James Harden, Nets eliminate Celtics from playoffs in five games

The Celtics bowed out in the first round on Tuesday.

The Celtics and Nets faced off in Game 5 on Tuesday. AP Photo/Adam Hunger

The Celtics’s 2020-21 season came to an end on Tuesday as the Nets pulled away in the fourth quarter of Game 5, claiming a 123-109 victory to close out their first-round series.

Here’s what happened.

The Big Picture

The Celtics took an early lead, and they never really let the Nets pull away despite the continued talent disparity. Missing three of their five starters, the Celtics still managed to stay within punching distance thanks in part to an impressive stretch by their second unit in the third quarter when Brooklyn was on the verge of pulling the rug out. Jayson Tatum started to find the range as well late in the second half after struggling for much of the game.

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In the fourth, however, the Nets’s offense was simply too much. James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant poured in a barrage of 3-pointers as the lead surged higher than 20, and all three sat down for the final minutes.

Star of the Game

James Harden — 34 points, 10-for-17 shooting, 10 rebounds, 10 assists.

Harden is perhaps the most important player for the Nets — a glue-guy superstar who keeps the entire Brooklyn machine humming. On Tuesday, he was also the top scorer.

The Nets’s star power is eye-opening. Milwaukee-Brooklyn will be fun.

What’s Next

The Celtics’s season is over. Now Danny Ainge can get down to the difficult business of trying to build a potential championship team around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Tatum’s performance this season, particularly in the playoffs, proved he’s ready to be a superstar and perhaps the best player on a real contender.

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Now Ainge needs to make his life a little easier.

Takeaways

1. Tatum appeared to be favoring his right leg for much of the game. At one point, TNT’s cameras caught him feeling at his knee. Later, Celtics trainers appeared to be working on his foot.

Whether Tatum was hurting or simply off is unclear — he finished with 32 points on 12-for-27 shooting, but he never really looked like himself. In either case, Boston had little chance against Brooklyn’s high-powered attack without a superhuman performance from its superstar.

2. Smart shot 5-for-17 from the field, which really hurt the Celtics. With Tatum a little off (and with Kemba Walker and Robert Williams out), they needed heroic nights (again) from players like Smart and Fournier to have a shot. Smart was typically solid defensively and Fournier scored 18 points on 8-for-17 shooting, but against a Nets team that cranked up its intensity in the fourth quarter, it simply wasn’t enough.

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3. Romeo Langford had some nice moments on both ends. Defensively, he showed flashes against James Harden, and he went 3-for-7 from 3-point range.

Brad Stevens praised Langford’s stretch run postgame, noting that nobody would remember all the injuries if he finished the season strong. A breakout season for Langford next year would be a crucial development for a team that lacked bench depth in a bad way this season.

4. After the game, several Celtics noted how decimated the team was by injuries. Smart in particular drew attention to the impossible task of building chemistry and cohesion as players missed games due to injury and COVID-19 protocols.

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“We’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals three out of the last four years,” Smart added after the game.

He’s right. Not only have the Celtics had plenty of playoff success, they also had no time to come together as a unit with a little more than a month between the end of the Disney World bubble and the condensed training camp to start the 2020-21 season. The Celtics have plenty of reason to believe next year could be significantly better if they simply keep the current core together.

Still, Danny Ainge has a lot of pressure. Even after his dreams of pairing Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis were dashed, he still has a chance to build something special — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown look like a formidable pairing. Acquiring stars is the hardest part.

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But Ainge’s current task isn’t easy either, especially with a looming salary crunch. The Celtics who took the court against the Nets on Tuesday probably will look different next season. How different remains to be seen.

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