The Celtics began the new year with a chance to improve their standing in the east and their draft stock in Brooklyn's pick at the same time. The emphasis on these games should be high, with each win practically counting double, but Boston would once again see high resistance from the lowly Nets in a 100-97 loss.
Brook Lopez was the center of attention, shooting 11-24 with 30 points and 13 rebounds. His constant dominance in the paint along with a late-flare from Joe Johnson (9-19 20 points) were just enough to hold off another late charge from the C's.
Boston was led by Isaiah Thomas (10-22, 24 points), Jae Crowder (5-13, 16 points, 7 rebounds), and a late burst of energy from Marcus Smart who as able to appear for 24 minutes (3-7, 11 points, 3 steals).
Both teams tried working it inside early, but to little success as Brooklyn keyed in on Sullinger. Celtics fell behind early 6-0 before a string of timeouts by both benches.
Brad Stevens wasn't having it after an 0-3, two turnover start from his team. Sloppiness and an all-around lack of urgency plagued both teams, but it was more evident on the home team that spent much of the half trailing.
The deficit dwindled as C's worked within five on an Amir Johnson put-back slam and Crowder steal that began to shift the game back towards Brooklyn's defensive end.
The struggles offensively persisted though. Trying to work inside, both teams were met with turnovers and misplays in ball-handling, but the presence of Brook Lopez gave the Nets a crucial edge.
Two Amir Johnson blocks in a row ultimately sparked the Celtics as the score sat at 11-6, Crowder broke away on the other end with another steal for two more.
That was when Lopez really began torturing the C's defense inside, who had immense trouble rotating towards him. He scored 10 of Brooklyn's first 14. Boston tried to utilize Sullinger (3-8) in a similar manner, but to little success.
C's went on massive 13-3 run late in the 1st after trailing by nine, and suddenly found themselves up one. The game suddenly broke into a back-and-forth shooting spree. J.Johnson three, Crowder three, J.Johnson 2, and an Amir put-back slam.
Amir Johnson and Sullinger challenged Brooklyn's bigs inside late in the quarter. But cutting guards Wayne Ellington, Jarrett Jack worked the game back to a 25-25 tie.
Nets went on a 6-4 run in final 2 minutes to finish off the first 31-29. 20 of their points came inside (10 for Lopez).
Into the 2nd C's opted for a Jerebko/Olynyk/Zeller front court despite the poor post defense in the first. Lopez got right to work torching C's inside. Early in the frame he was 5-7 with 14 points, keeping Brooklyn ahead by 1.
Boston was shooting 40% into the quarter, cutting guards off picks and movement by big men frustrated their defense. Halfway through the second they were shooting 3-13.
Then Avery Bradley went down after just 10 minutes. It was announced he had a left hip contusion late in the 2nd, and he wouldn't return.
Only the offensive activity of Thomas and Johnson kept Boston alive through the rough second. Depth ruled as 11 C's entered the game to that point, but few found their stride in limited minutes individually.
Smart was called for a technical as the C's benched was warned, then a late fire sparked in the team. A 9-0 Celtics run comes together, though fouls plagued Boston's defense, pacing and spacing picked them up offensively. Shots starting to fall again. Thomas capped off the half with a bucket and Nets lead by 56-55.
The Celtics had just nine assists heading into the 3rd. Ball movement became an emphasis. Overall it was a below-average shooting night for both teams (BOS: 39% BKN: 41%). An early Crowder three tied the score at 58.
After a hard foul by Sullinger on Lopez following another offensive rebound, both teams got into a scrum centered around Crowder going after Jack, who had come in and shoved Sully. Officials called a flagrant-1 on Sullinger, technicals on Jack and Crowder, and a sloppy aftermath by Boston led to 9-0 Brooklyn run.
C's were sluggish, shooting 1-6 and not putting the extra effort in on the defensive end. Brooklyn continued to bully them inside as Lopez jumped up to 18 points and the third quickly began to look like Boston's worst quarter of the season.
Isaiah broke up Brooklyn's run and went the other way for a quick bucket. Nets were dominating the boards and continuing to bully Boston inside as they jump ahead 11 late in the third.
Olynyk finally got involved, burying a three to keep Boston within double figures. Began Bogdanovic responded with his own.
Then the Nets caught a blow of their own as Jack was injured trying to drive ahead in transition off a turnover. He was carried off court in extreme pain with what was later reported as a sprained knee and did not return to the game.
Thomas called for a technical foul, third of the game on Boston, as Nets continued to just walk inside as James Young entered as Boston's 12th player to see minutes. Many players came in for the Celtics in this game, but few caught fire.
Nets led by 81-71 after a 25-16 third quarter. They may have lost Jack, but it was their interior defense that drove them.
Everything changed in the fourth for Boston, mostly on the back of energy from Smart and Evan Turner.
Smart opened up the quarter with a strong drive to the basket. Jerebko drilled a three and C's move within five after looking lifeless.
A Smart and-one driving to the basket was followed up by batting a ball off Lopez on the defensive end. Turner laid it in and C's tied it at 83 with a 10-2 run to start the 4th quarter.
Lopez buried a three-point play in the post to break that up but was followed up by Turner lay-up along the baseline. Ellington nailed a deep two with seven minutes to go and Lopez finished a Johnson miss with another put-back after a Boston turnover.
Thomas entered the game again with about six to go and hit a tough bucket underneath to bring the Celtics back within five. A few plays later he hit a very important three to make it 94-90 with 2:55 to go as the crowd got back into it and life entered the team.
Thad Young hits a pair of free throws for Brooklyn and J.Johnson followed up with a mid-ranger to put Brooklyn back up to a comfortable eight point lead.
Just when the Celtics looked finished, they had one last run in them. Thomas caught a pass off a quick stop with just over a minute to go and finished ahead of the defense. Next play he was dishing it to Crowder on the run for a three-point play to cut the Nets lead to three.
With time ticking, the C's tried cutting off Brooklyn at half court only to leave Lopez wide open underneath to throw down for his 30th point after a few nifty passes.
Smart made it interesting with a steal on the in-bounds that set up Turner's lay-up to cut the lead down to three. Then he stole it again after the Brooklyn timeout, tossed it up to Crowder before the ball got over to Jerebko who attempted and missed the potential game-tying three pointer.
The Celtics, as they have many times this year, improbably got to the final seconds in a position to steal a win but fell just short. Three quarters of low-energy play cost them and a spirited comeback attempt did little to ease the fact that they've lost two of three games vs. the Nets this season. They now travel to Brooklyn for their fourth and final game against them on Monday.