As the regular season wound down, the Celtics reiterated their focus was on playing their best basketball and doing their best to pace players to stay healthy for the playoffs.
And when they chose not to sit their starters in their regular-season finale against the Grizzlies, setting up a rematch with the Nets, they proved they weren't bluffing. That decision forced Boston to lock in and play at its best to beat Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and company, and brought the best out of them.
That was evident throughout this series, including when the Celtics had to fend off the Nets after Jayson Tatum fouled out with 2:49 left and Boston leading 109-103. It was another moment that illustrated the growth and character of this team.
Now, for a deep dive into Game 4's win.
Celtics Build 30-26 Lead in Foul-Filled First Quarter
Jaylen Brown got the Celtics off to a 4-0 start, knocking down a 12-foot jumper then burying an 18-foot pull up; Marcus Smart assisted on both buckets.
The Nets responded, including Kevin Durant tying the game at ten on a three from the left-wing. But in the process, Seth Curry picked up his third foul less than four minutes into the frame.
Less than a minute later, Jayson Tatum got into the teeth of the Nets' defense and kicked the ball to Al Horford for a corner that gave Boston the lead back, going ahead 15-12 with 6:40 to play in the quarter.
Derrick White checked in for Tatum at the 6:09 mark and quickly made his presence felt. First, he scored on a bunny from deep in the paint. After Daniel Theis swatted a Kyrie Irving layup, on the Celtics' next possession, White attacked a Kevin Durant closeout, then up-faked Nic Claxton, absorbing the contact and finishing soft off the glass. And he cashed in on the ensuing free throw to put Boston up 22-12 with 4:47 to go.
The Celtics continued getting into the gaps, then spraying the ball out to shooters, as Smart dished to Grant Williams for a three from the left corner to put them ahead by nine at the 3:13 mark.
Irving answered with a pull-up triple of his own, a shot aided by a vicious screen from Durant on Grant Williams. And as the period came to a close, Durant drove by Robert Williams and dropped a bounce pass to Claxton for two points at the rim to make it a 30-26 game in favor of the visitors entering the second quarter.
Durant finished the frame with a game-high 11 points, but Boston's offense generated ten points in the paint and went 10/11 at the charity stripe. It also helped that Claxton went 0-6 from the free-throw line.
On another note, Curry and Goran Dragic racked up three fouls in the opening quarter, and Durant picked up two.
Neither Team Scores 30 Points in a Tightly Contested Second Quarter
On the first possession of the period, while on offense, Horford earned his third foul of the game, sending him back to the bench for Theis.
At the 9:25 mark, Tatum capitalized on a three from the left corner to put the Celtics ahead 33-30. He drained another shortly after that, then cashed in on a 20-foot pull-up jumper, giving him 12 points 3/5 shooting; the other four came at the free-throw line.
More than halfway through the quarter, with Boston leading 45-39, Durant drilled a three, Irving sank a 14-foot floater, and Durant found Curry for a right-corner three in transition to make it a 45-44 game with 3:29 to play in the first half.
That forced Ime Udoka to take a timeout. Coming out of the break, Tatum found Grant Williams for a three from the left corner that extended Boston's lead to 48-44.
In the final minute, Brown went strong to the basket for two, and Tatum quickly swung the ball off the catch to Grant Williams for a left corner three with 1.4 seconds left, giving the Celtics a 58-50 advantage at the half.
Durant entered the break with a game-high 20 points on 7/15 shooting, and the Nets knocked down 51.4 percent of their shots, including going 6/15 (40 percent) from three.
But the Celtics were having success offensively, too, largely thanks to their ball movement and aggressive mentality. They assisted on 15 of 20 field goals and produced 18 points in the paint.
Tatum, Brown, and Grant Williams each had a team-high 12 points. Tatum also distributed five assists. Smart paced the team in that department, dishing out seven. Boston also got a boost off the bench from Derrick White, who contributed seven points and six rebounds.
Celtics Score 32 Points in the Third Quarter, Take Double-Digit Lead into the Fourth
While it had been a quiet night for Robert Williams, with 6:26 to play in the third, in a familiar sighting, Smart attacked off the dribble and threw the Timelord a lob for an above-the-rim finish.
After missing his first ten free throws, Claxton finally made one, generating a loud ovation from the crowd at the Barclays Center. Irving followed that up with a clean look at a pull-up three from above the break that would have sent the home fans into a frenzy, but he couldn't get it to go.
At the 5:23 mark, Tatum banked-in a three to give the Celtics a 78-69 lead. Their following possession, White didn't force a three, instead driving and scooping the ball to Smart for a layup that put Boston ahead 80-69. Then came a Tatum fadeaway over Bruce Brown, giving him 23 points and the Celtics an 82-71 lead with 3:56 left.
The Nets tried going small, but Smart drove and generated a foul. Then, inbounding from under the basket, Smart found a diving Grant Williams for an easy two points at the rim. Tatum then showed off his foot work, earning a nifty two points by the basket to extend Boston's advantage to 85-73 with 2:40 to play in the period.
Coming out of a timeout, Ime Udoka drew up another effective ATO, generating a three for Horford from the right-wing that gave the visitors an 88-75 lead. The Celtics got two more points from White on a layup that came on the heels of a missed three from Curry, sending Boston into the final frame on top 90-78.
Tatum Fouls Out, Celtics Still Fend Off Nets to Sweep the Series
Curry scored the first four points of the fourth quarter, trimming Boston's lead to 90-82. Durant then hit a tightly contested jumper over Grant Williams to make it a 90-84 game with 10:08 to play, prompting coach Udoka to take a timeout.
Tatum came in after the break, and two Celtics' possessions later, he threw down a two-handed jam, then buried a three to put Boston on top 95-86 with 8:54 remaining. The three gave him 29 points.
But on Boston's next possession, Blake Griffin stepped-up, drawing a charge on Tatum, his fifth foul. Given the stakes, Coach Udoka challenged it, but he was unsuccessful. That brought Horford into the game for Tatum with 8:17 left.
Smart then took an inadvertent elbow to the face from Durant, resulting in the former MVP picking up his
The two teams proceeded to trade blows, as a Horford three got followed by one from Curry, and after Smart made one, Dragic answered from beyond the arc, making it a 101-94 game with 6:37 to play.
After a Horford miss near the rim, Dragic attacked off the dribble, beat Horford, and made a reverse layup to bring the Nets within five with 6:12 on the clock. Dragic then got a bit of good fortune, banking in a three from above the break, cutting Brooklyn's deficit to three, 102-99, with 5:24 remaining.
Fortunately for Boston, Jaylen Brown responded with a 16-foot pull-up jumper while getting fouled by Irving. He then tacked on the extra point to extend the Celtics' lead to 105-99 with 5:07 left.
Smart then produced a critical extra effort play, tipping-in a Grant Williams miss after Tatum drove, kicked the ball to Williams in the right corner, and he attacked a closeout to get a shot at the basket.
Durant and Irving generated the next two field goals, bringing Brooklyn within four, 107-103 with 3:42 to play.
Smart countered with a layup after nearly losing the ball to put the Celtics ahead 109-103 with 3:22 to go. After an ill-advised missed three from Griffin, Tatum fouled out on a call this author disagrees with, as Dragic and him went down while the former fought for position to get the ball on a sideline inbounds.
Irving then drilled a deep three from above the break to make it a 109-106 game with 2:31 remaining. Irving had a chance to cut Boston's lead to one, but Brown stayed in front of him and did a great job of contesting without fouling to prevent that from happening.
Grant Williams had less success as Durant attacked him off the dribble after catching the ball in the pinch post, shooting over Williams to make it a 109-108 game with 1:28 on the clock.
But Jaylen Brown answered, driving baseline for a layup that extended the Celtics' advantage to 111-108.
With 22.2 seconds left, Durant went 1/2 at the free-throw line, and after Smart missed a layup, Horford cleaned it up to give Boston a 113-109 lead with 13.7 seconds remaining.
The Nets dialed up a play to get Durant a three from up top, but he missed it, and Smart tracked down the long rebound, and Patty Mills fouled him with seven seconds on the clock. Smart made both free throws, extending Boston's lead to 115-109 as loud chants of "let's go, Celtics!" could be heard from the visiting fans.
Durant then made a three to make it a 115-112 game with 2.8 seconds left. But after getting fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass, Smart went 1/2 at the line, making the front end and missing the second shot. The clock expired, and the Celtics advanced to the second round, sweeping the Nets.
Despite Tatum fouling out, he finished with a team-high 29 points on 9/16 shooting, including going 4/6 from beyond the arc. The three-time All-Star also went 7/8 at the free-throw line. And while he committed six turnovers, he dished out five assists. That, combined with his defensive contributions, earned him a plus-minus rating of plus-10. The only player who matched that was Griffin, who logged 18 minutes in a very different role.
Brown registered 22 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and also had a strong showing defensively; most notably, on the play where he denied Irving of two points at the rim that kept Boston ahead by three with under 2:30 left.
Brown dealt with hamstring issues in the second half, but he told NBC Sports Boston's Abby Chin after the game: "I’m alright. I think I’m alright. I’m going to go get checked out, and I think I’ll be fine for next one."
Smart produced 20 points on 7/16 shooting, and went 3/7 on threes. Offensively, Boston's floor general was most impactful as a facilitator, dishing out a game-high 11 assists. It's a given that the Defensive Player of the Year was stout at that end, too. A testament to that is the Celtics holding Irving to 20 points, and while he made some big shots, he never led the Nets on the type of run that could have swung tonight's outcome. For good measure, Smart only committed one turnover, and he corralled five rebounds.
As a team, the Celtics assisted on 26 of 42 field goals. Their ball movement and aggressiveness, relentlessly attacking mismatches as they had all series, led to them shooting 47.2 percent from the field, including 14/35 (40 percent) from beyond the arc.
Boston also produced 44 points in the paint, generated 18 at the free-throw line, and scored 17 on second-chance opportunities.
Durant went off for 39 points in this game, often attacking quicker and, at times, running the show from up top, rather than working to get the ball off the catch around the elbow or the wing. But as illustrated after Game 1, throughout this series, the Celtics defended him as well as this author has ever seen a team guard him.
Last year, without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics still managed to take a game from a Brooklyn team that had James Harden and looked like they were on their way to the Finals before he and Irving got injured. This time around, not only did the Celtics sweep the Nets, but they stepped up as a collective to overcome Tatum's absence down the stretch.
The Celtics get some well deserved time off to recharge before the second round of the playoffs. Presumably, they will play the Bucks, who lead the Bulls 3-1. That matchup between Boston and Milwaukee could start as early as Saturday, April 30. As a reward for not dodging the Nets, then dispatching them, the Celtics have home court next round.