My observations from Boston’s 125-119 win over Brooklyn on Friday:
Celtics get up off the mat
How improbable was that? After taking a six-point lead into the locker room at halftime of Game 1, the Celtics were outscored 187-148 over the next six quarters. The Nets tattooed them by 22 on Tuesday in Game 2. Brooklyn picked up right where it left off in the opening minutes of Game 3, building a 19-4 lead and threatening to turn Boston’s home opener into a laugher.
And then—the Celtics showed up. Jayson Tatum—more on him below—dropped 50 points. Marcus Smart chipped in 23. Evan Fournier added 17, making four of his seven threes. Tristan Thompson, forced into an expanded role when Robert Williams went out with an ankle injury, had a double-double (19 points, 13 rebounds). Romeo Langford was a team-high plus-21 in 27 minutes, collecting six points and six rebounds and contributing solid defense.
The Celtics had every reason to roll over in this one. They are undermanned and hopelessly outgunned. But for the first time in months, perhaps all season, the team dug deep and clawed its way to a season-saving win. And, suddenly, we have a series.
Tatum settles in—and then some
How good was Tatum? Brooklyn’s switching, trapping defense flummoxed him in the first two games of this series. He scored a combined 31 points in the first two games, needing 32 shots to do it. In Game 3, Tatum busted out. He shot 53.3% from the floor. He shot 45.5% from three. He went to the free throw line 15 times, making 13 of them. Brad Stevens repeatedly ran Tatum into guard screens, forcing Kyrie Irving to defend Tatum in the middle of the floor. And Tatum feasted.
As rocky a season as this has been for Boston, it’s been a brilliant one for Tatum, who should make an All-NBA team for the second straight year. He scored 60 points against the Spurs towards the end of the regular season and now has a 50-point playoff performance on his resume. This is a player ascending to superstardom right before us.
The Nets look mortal
Brooklyn's defensive flaws were on display in this one. The Celtics shot 50.6% from the floor and 41% from three. Offensively, Durant (39 points) and Harden (41) showed up, but no one else did. That included Irving, whose anticipated return to Boston added another layer earlier in the week, when Irving seemingly suggested he had been subject to racist language from Celtics fans in the past. Irving was booed loudly by the 5,000 fans allowed in the TD Garden. Before the game, Irving acknowledged the boos, waving his hand at the crowd. On the court, Irving looked out of sorts. He was never able to get into a rhythm, finishing with 16 points in 41 minutes.
Brooklyn must look beyond Big Three ...
Joe Harris was 2-for-7 from three, after connecting on seven of his ten triples in Game 2. With the defense collapsing on Durant, Harden and Irving, Harris will continue to get open looks in this series. For Brooklyn, he needs to knock them down.
... and nip Boston's comeback in the bud
How will the Nets respond in Game 4? Brooklyn still has to feel confident, but this series could get really interesting, quickly. The NBA playoffs have seen some intense environments already. Madison Square Garden, buzzing with the Knicks return to the playoffs. Utah, in Game 2, when the Jazz welcomed back Donovan Mitchell. On Sunday, Boston’s crowd will be electric. Capacity will be expanded to around 17,000 on Sunday, giving the Celtics a home court advantage they haven’t felt since COVID-19 hit. That should give Boston a boost, and could rattle Irving, who clearly isn’t all that comfortable as the target of the ire.
On Friday morning, the Celtics looked finished. In one night, they put all the pressure on Brooklyn, a talented but hastily assembled team that will have to show a resiliency it has not had to.
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