BROOKLYN — The Celtics and Nets entered an important tiebreaker game trying to mildly reinvent themselves with Jaylen Brown and Kevin Durant facing short and long-term injuries. The Celtics’ approach wouldn’t change much, only involving deeper rotations to Payton Pritchard and small-ball lineups. Jacque Vaughn imagined larger changes for his Nets, alterations to their defensive scheme and putting Ben Simmons at the point of attack.
Boston’s spacing and passing persevered, and the Celtics scored an impressive 109-98 win over a team that took the paint away, forced difficult reads and peppered the Celtics with transition runouts. The Celtics tightened up after halftime and held the Nets to 38% shooting through the buzzer, including a 9-for-24 night from Kyrie Irving.
“Our half court defense was great the entire night,” Joe Mazzulla said. “We talked a lot about, against this team, the game’s connected. The defense starts with managing your offense, because of how well they guard. They get out in transition and create cross matches with Simmons, and so I felt like our half court offense was great for the majority of the game, and in the fourth quarter, we managed the game offensively, we got great looks, we had good spacing and it kept them out of transition for the majority of the time.”
Brooklyn saw early returns breaking out to a 19-14 lead. Simmons played the back line defensively, playing away from Robert Williams III and Luke Kornet while Al Horford sat. He tipped an early Marcus Smart pass attempt and forced an awkward Williams III kick-out on a point blank look. Derrick White, Kornet and Williams III scored all of the Celtics’ points midway through the quarter while Brooklyn’s size took the paint away.
Smart and Tatum still managed to generate multiple without getting their own shots off to keep the game close. Smart served eight assists in the first half, getting Kornet a three and leading Grant Williams downhill for a pair of baskets to keep pace with a sprinting Nets offense. Grant left the court fired up after Tatum’s three tied the game at 23, and Mazzulla calmed him down as the Celtics stayed composed anticipating various Nets runs. They needed to avoid complaining, too, after multiple difficult calls frustrated them.
“I thought just touching the paint and kicking the ball out (opened the paint),” Brogdon told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog post-game. “Getting them to spread out a little more, so at the end of the shot clock, we were able to get layups, dunks and even open threes.”
Simmons opened up the Net’s floor game by finding Yuta Watanabe running for two points and faked a set before making a quick outlet pass to Joe Harris for three. Brooklyn led, 31-29, into the second quarter, where Boston’s bench needed to survive without Tatum.
Sam Hauser, Payton Pritchard checked in with Malcolm Brogdon to run small ball and they held the line, staying behind by two points after an 8-0 run from White, Hauser and Pritchard after the Celtics swung a series of passes to find him for three in the corner. Tatum returned opposite of Simmons, who prevented him from reaching the basket after finding a switch on Seth Curry. Simmons blocked Brogdon, who actually tried to attack and sent Warren out on the run for a transition bucket for a 50-44 lead.
“The way they play, they’re very together, defensively and offensively,” Simmons said. “I don’t think it’s, they have some great individuals, but when you put it together, they play play team basketball. They know their roles, they play team basketball, they’re very consistent.”
The Celtics largely held Irving in check, though, who pressed to get his shot off despite Vaughn not wanting to add more on his plate than usual. Warren relieved the burden with 20 points, but stopped the ball, while Simmons kept it moving. He didn’t score in 26 minutes. Tatum — who shot 7-for-22 — finished the first half catching a full-court bounce pass from Smart, pulling up for two over Watanabe and forcing a three-point foul on Warren shortly before the buzzer. He admitted to multiple hand injuries bothering him. The Celtics scrapped to a 60-57 lead at halftime.
Smart kept the ball bouncing around the half court to maintain a narrow lead into the second half. Tatum caught and finished a three while another make by White got cancelled out, but Smart’s activity drew an emphatic high five from Boston’s star.
He chased offensive rebounds, but the Nets took advantage of that new layer to the Celtics offense by finding Claxton and Harris for transition buckets to grab a lead midway through the third. Watanabe and Irving hit threes, while Claxton floated in the lane to block Tatum after he beat Watanabe off the dribble.
The bench had another boost in it between quarters though. Brogdon scored five straight points on jump shots to reestablish Boston’s lead. Grant hit four straight free throws and blocked an Irving jumper. Smart, helping on Pritchard on the baseline guarding Warren, forced a miss and Pritchard ran out for a layup before the Celtics escaped another quarter with a lead.
Brogdon and Pritchard extended that lead to eight early in the fourth, Brogdon with a pair of layups and Pritchard by slicing dribbles into the lane and pulling up for two shots that sent the Celtics’ bench across half court into timeout.
“(Pritchard) is so professional and he does all the right things to stay ready when his number’s called, he gets in there and does what he’s supposed to do,” Smart said. “Payton is a very professional guy, he comes in every day and works like he’s a rookie. When you’ve got a guy like that, his time’s gonna come ... I’m constantly talking to Payton every day, and as bad as it may sound, it’s the truth and reality, and we’ve got to live in the reality that, you’re not playing on this team, you’re not getting the moments you want and you think you deserve, which you do, because we’re so stacked, but there’s 29 other teams watching. They understand your situation. They want to see how you handle this.”
Simmons, rolling with a lane to the rim off Irving, threw a pass off of Claxton before missing another layup on the next possession to finish 0-for-3. Smart found Kornet on an alley-oop for a reverse finish that pushed Boston’s lead to double digits, and Tatum extended the lead to 13 points with an and-one finish through Tatum. Williams III finished with 29 minutes, stretching to another benchmark since his return to close the win.
The Celtics now move on to Charlotte for a two-game mini series where they’ll likely remain without Brown.