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Celtics let Joe Harris get loose in Game 2

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By trying to stop Brooklyn’s Big Three, Joe Harris torched the Celtics’ defense in Game 2.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Slowing the Brooklyn Nets’ offense is hard. If Kevin Durant isn’t doing the damage, it’s James Harden. If neither of those two MVP’s has the ball, chances are Kyrie Irving is doing something magical with it.

Even if a defense can somehow make life difficult for all three of those players with solid man coverage backed by quality rotations, even that’s not enough. As talented as they are at the top, the Nets are an unselfish bunch, leveraging the immense attention drawn by their Big Three to free up looks for shooters dotted around the perimeter.

Shooters like Joe Harris.

No sane defense wants to leave the career 43.8 percent 3-point shooter alone beyond the arc, but Brooklyn’s pick-your-poison scenario demands Durant, Harden, and Irving hold top priority, even if it means abandoning basic defensive fundamentals.

The Celtics were burned by that strategy in their 130-108 loss to Brooklyn — though it’s not like any other would breed better results. Harris made seven of his 10 triples for 25 points in just 29 minutes to help give the Nets a 2-0 series lead.

“When Harris is going like that, they become exceptionally difficult to stop,” Brad Stevens said. “Because then that limits how much you wanna really rotate and blitz.”

Most of the damage Harris inflicted occurred in the first quarter, where he was a perfect 4-of-4 on threes. His first was a model example of the extreme problems Brooklyn’s offense presents.

Trapping Harden is not a revolutionary concept and was probably the right call with Kemba Walker switched onto him. Once that double is made, however, Boston winds up in an unwinnable situation.

Marcus Smart had to sink off Kyrie to avoid giving Blake Griffin an uncontested lane to the bucket. Jayson Tatum couldn’t do that because he’d be helping off KD in the strongside corner, where Harden can easily make the pass.

Evan Fournier makes the right rotation onto Irving. Smart actually manages to recover fairly well to Harris, but fairly well isn’t good enough for the league’s most efficient 3-point shooter during the regular season.

“You blitz one of those guys or you double team one of those guys and the ball just swings to another guy that’s a great shooter and they’re good at finding those guys,” Stevens said. “You gotta do the best you can at providing appropriate help but try to maintain your shell because if you get flying around these guys are unselfish, they play well together, and they find each other open.”

After a Tristan Thompson alley-oop dunk, the Celtics were up by one with a little over eight minutes remaining in the quarter. Unfortunately, it was the final lead they’d have all game as each of Harris’ four triples — and a running layup — contributed to an explosive 16-1 run to put Boston down 14.

The Celtics missed 13 of their 21 shot attempts in the first. Brooklyn pushed the pace with its three guys to create the chaos teammates like Harris thrive off of.

Though Brooklyn’s offense is nearly impossible to slow, Boston wasn’t always doing all it could to make things difficult.

One of Harris’ triples resulted from strange defensive coverage by the tandem of Walker and Thompson. As Harris curled around a handoff from Griffin, Thompson dropped back to guard the roll while Kemba inexplicably went under the screen. That’s a combination that will get you torched from beyond the arc.

But for the most part, the Nets picked apart a battered and broken team to the tune of 31 assists. Their Big Three contributed 18 of those dimes despite none of them playing more than 29 minutes in the blowout victory.

“We saw in Game 1 how much they collapsed when guys get into the paint or even or keyed in they were with Kyrie, James, Kevin,” Harris said after the game. “So it was one of those situations where a lot of it was just extra pass and me just trying to find windows.”

The Celtics now head home for Games 3 and 4, which could very well be their last.

Of course, they have to do a better job at the defensive end. Brooklyn has averaged 117.0 points a night through the first two games. That number could’ve easily been higher if not for the blowout nature of Game 2.

“We have to make it a game where we’re in our shell more, we’re guarding more as a team and on a string as a team and not overreacting to the individual play,” Stevens said.

That strategy is easier said than done when the individual play comes from three of this generation’s greatest scorers, opening the door for Harris to take his turn inflicting the perimeter punishment Boston no doubt wants to be mercifully put out of.