A Game 3 victory gave Boston the formula for success in its first round series with the Nets. Though not an easy plan to execute against an opponent that offers little margin for error, the continuous heroics of Jayson Tatum, who scored 50 in the Game 3 win, along with several others stepping up to the challenge, would, in theory, be enough to change the outlook of a series that had seemingly been written through the first two games.
Well, Tatum finished with 40 points in Game 4 on a perfect 17-of-17 from the free throw line. In the absence of Kemba Walker and Robert Williams, two late scratches dealing with respective ailments, Marcus Smart went for 16 points and nine assists. Four other Celtics scored in double figures. The team made 14 triples as a whole and went a sparkling 38-of-42 from the stripe, doubling their makes from the previous game.
Based on the results of Game 3, Boston’s effort in Game 4 should’ve been enough to tie the series, but it wasn’t. Because after falling behind 3-1 to the Nets after a 141-126 defeat, the Celtics truly learned how little control they have over the outcome of the series against a trio that’s rounding into form.
The Celtics put up an early fight in the first, withstanding a combined 29 points from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to finish the frame up by one. Whereas a team in Boston’s place would typically be in a prime position to extend that lead with KD and Kyrie on the bench to begin the second, it was during that stretch where Brooklyn showcased the true extent of its unfairness with James Harden taking charge.
Durant and Irving sat for approximately the first five minutes of the second, during which Harden scored nine points and dished out two assists to turn a one-point Celtics lead into a seven-point deficit.
After stepping aside to let his All-Star teammates go to work in the first, the second quarter belonged to Harden, who compiled 15 points and 6 assists in that 12-minute span. Irving also chipped 11. The Celtics were down 13 at the half, and that was all Brooklyn needed to continue flooring the gas pedal all the way to a blowout victory, picking apart a defense that couldn’t help but try to be everywhere at once.
“We obviously started the game great. Our energy was great. Offensively, we scored pretty consistently all night,” Brad Stevens said after the game. “But when they went and got going individually, it’s almost like we overreacted and started over-scrambling, over-blitzing, trying to trap. And it just opened up easier opportunities and then everybody’s rolling.”
Durant led the charge in the third with 17 on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting, and he knew exactly how unfair both he and his teammates were with some trash talk directed at Boston’s bench.
Kyrie scored another eight and Harden dished out another four assists as Boston’s deficit crept towards 30. When the third-quarter buzzer sounded, the Nets had scored 112 points, and their Big Three scored or assisted on 110 of them.
“It’s hard to watch those guys go isolation and it’s hard to play them one-on-one,” Stevens said. “They do a really good job when you run and jump them... We made a lot of adjustments and the adjustments were worse.”
Durant dominated the start of each half on his way to 42 points on just 20 shots. Harden, who also dished out seven assists in the fourth, was a one-man show when he needed to be en route to 23 points and the table-setter he’s proven comfortable being since arriving in Brooklyn with 18 assists. Irving was a constant onslaught of buckets with 39 that even included a rare put-back dunk.
104 combined points are tied for the most by a trio in a single game in NBA playoff history. A combined 85.6 points per game through the first four games is on pace to be the most by any trio in any playoff series in league history.
Any production from Kemba and Williams would’ve helped the Celtics, but only by so much. They’re up against a juggernaut that is putting to bed the only glimmer of hope any opponent had.
Healthy and gelling as a unit, Brooklyn is clearing a path not even the best version of Tatum can stop.
“They’re a really good team and they have some really good individual players,” Tatum said. “Sometimes it’s gonna be nights like that where guys are feeling it and hitting shots. In a league like we have with so many gifted NBA players, there’s gonna be nights like that where guys just got it going.”