The Celtics defense set the tone early, as Boston raced out to a big lead over the visiting Nets. Brooklyn made a run in the late third quarter that lasted in to the fourth quarter to make it close, but the Celtics were able to hold them off for the victory.
With one eye on the scoreboard, as the Celtics were looking for some help from the Miami Heat against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston defense looked as good as it has all season in the first half. The Nets shot just 3 of 21 in the first quarter and 9 of 23 in the second. They were aided by a bushel of free throw attempts to offset the poor shooting from the floor.
The key for the Celtics was aggressive defense on pick-and-roll plays. They hedged hard and then dug down deep if the ball went inside. All five players, regardless of who was in the game, were on the same page and active. Brooklyn rarely saw a clean look, and that allowed Boston to take a 58-40 lead at halftime.
After halftime, as has all too often been the case, the Celtics couldn’t close out the opponent. They let up just enough on defense and the offense got sloppy. And the Celtics’ shooting went a bit cold too, as they missed several shots they had hit earlier in the game.
Isaiah Thomas led the Celtics with 27 points, while Al Horford played a terrific all-around game with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists, in addition to solid interior defense. Avery Bradley re-discovered his shooting form, as he hit 7 of 10 shots for 18 points.
Boston also has gotten the “IT&D” lineup working over the last few weeks. Being able to go small when the playoffs hit will be key for the Celtics, as they need to have that versatility against several of the teams they will come up against.
Brook Lopez scored 25 points to become the Nets’ all-time franchise scoring leader. Jeremy Lin added 26, helped by a career-best 16 of 17 from the free throw line and a career-high 12 rebounds.
As for the help from Miami? The Heat trailed for much of the game, but rallied back in the fourth quarter to take a lead as large as seven points. Cleveland came back and tied, and the game went to overtime.
UPDATE: The Heat beat the Cavaliers in overtime, and the Celtics again lead the Eastern Conference and control their own destiny for the top overall seed in the playoffs.