There are no such things as moral victories in the NBA Playoffs, but while the Boston Celtics lost to the second seeded Nets in Brooklyn on Saturday night, they put up a fight to be proud of. The Celtics frustrated the Nets’ superstar trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving with chippy, tenacious defense for much of the night, holding Brooklyn to an uncharacteristic 42% shooting from the field. But the Boston offense didn’t have quite enough answers to keep pace with the Nets, faltering late and ultimately losing to the Nets, 104-93.
As you might expect, Jayson Tatum led the way for the Celtics on a generally quiet night on the offensive end of the court, scoring a team-high 22 points but hitting just 6-of-20 shots on the evening. Instead, the story for Boston came on the defensive end, where Robert Williams set a new Celtics’ playoff record with nine blocked shots to anchor a strong defensive effort (and was just one shy of tying the all-time NBA playoff record, too). Brooklyn’s big three combined for 81 points, but those buckets did not come easy all night long.
The Celtics came out of the gate playing with energy and decisiveness from the jump. Led by a hot start from Tatum, they found their range from deep and kept the Nets on their heels in the early minutes. They connected on four three-pointers in the early minutes of the game, while the Nets struggled to find an offensive rhythm, shooting just 27% from the field and missing their first nine attempts from deep.
A game-time decision coming into the game, Robert Williams came in off the bench for the Celtics this evening to try and impact the game despite being limited due to his toe injury. The Celtics have been a different team this season with Williams in the lineup, and tonight was no exception. In his first stint of the evening, he showed no signs of slowing down due to injury, including a powerful block of an Irving layup attempt. With Williams in the middle, Boston’s defense continued to stifle the Brooklyn offense, and the Celtics entered the second quarter with a 21-16 advantage.
Brooklyn’s malaise carried over into the early minutes of the second quarter, and the Celtics started to capitalize. They outscored the Nets 11-4 in the first three minutes of the quarter, opening up the first double-digit lead of the evening for either team, prompted a Steve Nash timeout with just over nine minutes remaining in the half.
Returning from the timeout, Brooklyn started to resemble the championship contender that they have been envisioned to be. They erased the Boston advantage in the span of just two minutes, pulling back within three after Irving converted an and-1 layup off of Walker’s third foul of the evening. The rest of the quarter was a back-and-forth affair, with the Celtics maintaining a slight edge thanks to chippy defense and timely three-pointers from Smart and Fournier. They entered the half hanging onto a 53-47 lead.
Foul trouble entered the conversation as the second half kicked off, as Tatum picked up his third foul grabbing Durant’s waist on a drive less than a minute into the quarter and Walker picked up his fourth on the floor moments later. The Nets, meanwhile, started the third quarter with more purpose than they showed in the first half, taking their first lead since the score was 2-0 behind a Harden step-back three-pointer. The floodgates opened from there, as Irving and Durant followed with threes of their own, prompting a Brad Stevens timeout just four minutes into the half trailing 60-57.
The Nets’ surge quickly morphed into an 11-0 run to put them into the driver’s seat in the contest. To their credit, the Celtics didn’t fold under the pressure; the Nets are a near-impossible team to guard when they’re clicking, but the Celtics continued to battle and held the surging Nets’ lead within single digits. The third quarter came and went, and the Celtics entered the final frame trailing by five, 78-73.
Williams’ availability proved to be invaluable to Boston in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, as he single-handedly disrupted the Nets’ offense with three blocks in as many minutes and finished a gorgeous alley-oop from Tatum on the other end of the floor. As the quarter carried on, though, the Celtics struggled to keep up with Brooklyn’s offensive firepower. After Durant slammed home a breakaway dunk, the Nets built their first double-digit lead of the game, enjoying an 89-79 lead with just under six minutes remaining in regulation. The Celtics continued to make some plays, but Brooklyn held them at arm’s length the rest of the way, and that was all she wrote for Game 1 of the first round series.
Next up, the Celtics remain in Brooklyn for Game 2 against the Nets, this Tuesday at 7:30 PM EST.