NEW YORK — Ime Udoka focused on the bad film over the all-star break. The tape that led to him beginning his head coaching career 18-21 before the Celtics broke off 16 wins over their last 21 entering the break. He split the season into segments defined by ball movement, or lack thereof.
Its presence remained a fixture in Brooklyn, as Boston led by as many as 24 points in their first game back from the all-star, fully healthy and again swarming on the opening possessions like they did in this same building earlier this month. It wasn’t a 28-2 start, but the Celtics piled up stops on three straight Nets possessions and six of Brooklyn’s first eight, including a pair of forced live ball turnovers.
The result mirrored last outing’s final score between these two teams traveling in opposite directions anyway. Boston mashed the Nets 129-106 with more seamless defensive rotations, breakaways in transition and 28 assists on 46 baskets. For Brooklyn, it marked their 13th loss over their last 15 games. Steve Nash sounded unconcerned pregame, as he awaits the return of the top-four of his rotation.
The Celtics, fully intact, followed their intention to throw go-ahead passes as they had in the waning weeks of the season’s first half. Their aggression going inside drew four Nets fouls in under six minutes, including three trips by Jaylen Brown to the free throw line.
Marcus Smart dished a pair of assists to Al Horford in transition and Robert Williams III via lob that landed the Celtics an early 8-2 advantage after his catch-and-shoot three. Bruce Brown and James Johnson hit a pair of bailout threes to keep the Nets within single digits only after long possessions of extra passes trying to navigate around Boston’s paint presences.
One of them, Williams III, provided the Celtics an early outlet for touch passes around Brooklyn’s zone look. He tortured Andre Drummond on the offensive end with his verticality, while Smart hit two more threes. Boston entered the bonus midway through the quarter as the Nets fouled instead of guarding. Grant Williams added a blow-by layup past LaMarcus Aldridge, then Derrick White hit a spot-up three off the bench to hand the Celtics a 35-22 lead after the first quarter.
Drummond began bothering Williams III into the second quarter, ducking into the lane on pick-and-rolls, keeping offensive rebounds alive and handing Boston’s big man a third foul (followed by a technical foul for slapping the floor) chasing a loose ball shortly before halftime. The Nets pulled off a 9-1 run to stay within a 20-point deficit after the Celtics built that advantage for the fifth time in eight games early in the second quarter.
Horford began the second frame with a catch-and-shoot three above the break, then darted a pass through traffic to get Brown two in transition after a stop. Brown then handed White the ball at the left elbow for a driving finish through a foul in the lane. Payton Pritchard’s pull-up three gave Boston its biggest lead at 51-30.
Smart leaped off the bench to halt Brooklyn’s comeback attempt, tossing Williams III a lob on his first touch and later in the quarter walking the dog to the right wing and hitting a long three — his fourth on five tries. Then he found Tatum rolling for an explosive slam through the Nets’ back line.
JAYSON TATUM pic.twitter.com/X2kOupaOhv— The Daily Dunk (@TheDailyDunkfr) February 25, 2022
Tatum found Brown for three and finished inside again before halftime to pt the Celtics back up by 17. He played a clean quarter after his three turnovers earlier in the game, and the ball kept flying around the court into the third quarter. Brown found Rob for another lob, then Smart hit Brown at the rim in transition. A rapid-fire Celtics possession saw the ball fly around Smart’s back, off the court to a bounce pass to Brown inside, then find a cutting Horford.
Fancy passing. pic.twitter.com/Wew2tCU7yU— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) February 25, 2022
Smart hit a three, his fifth, from Tatum before Brown fed Tatum for his own. Boston assisted on four of its first five buckets in the second half and 17 of its first 28 in the game, sticking sharp on the offensive end to their first-half emphasizes too.
Outside of Seth Curry, Drummond and Brown, Brooklyn couldn’t find any offensive life as they played short-handed entering its fourth straight week with Ben Simmons, Goran Dragic and Durant working their way back to the floor. Kyrie Irving, still ineligible to play at home, may see the Barclays Center floor before the regular season ends after Mayor Eric Adams announced plans to rescind New York City’s indoor COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
A second-chance three for Tatum from White in the post extended the Celtics’ lead back to 22 points, which they’d extend to 26 in the fourth quarter. Horford swarmed Kessler Edwards with White above the break early in the frame, grabbing a steal and spilling out for a fundamental two-on-one finish inside. Tatum and Pritchard did the same plays later. Breakouts emblematic of the fast-paced attack now natural for a team that couldn’t run earlier in the calendar.
Horford’s cutting dunk and back-to-back threes from Grant and Tatum pushed the Celtics just short of a 30-point lead before the benches spilled into the game. Now as regular a sight around this Boston team as fourth-quarter collapses had been early in the season.