Basketball sounds from player to player when the Celtics attack and it turns out that Grant Williams, when the first half was over, was in the 4th game of the Boston Round of 16 playoff series Monday night in central Barclays against the Nets.
Williams had plenty of space to arrange his 3-pointer, which he struck. The Nets still had time for one last lift before halftime, while the incoming pass went to Kiri Irving with 2.1 seconds left. But instead of hitting half past the pitch, he simply let the ball go for the referee to pass the time.
It was a small moment – insignificant, perhaps – but also revealed in a peculiar way. Where was the despair? Why not use every opportunity? Of course, Nets lost his chances during the second half.
The Nets were looking forward to fighting for the NBA championship and maybe one day they will too. But that day is not now. Another brief post-season appearance ended on Monday when the Celtics defeated the Nets, 116-112, to end four games. For the seventh-seeded Nets, who spent months cycling through the characters ’variegated cast, it was the finale of the declining season. They eliminated injuries and absences, a mixed list that failed to reveal a consistent brand of basketball, and, finally, a superior opponent who placed his suffocating catchers on the two best players on the planet.
The Celtics created the highest level of defense in the league in the regular season and proved it was not against Irving and Kevin Durant. Ime Udoka, the Celtics’ first-year coach, was one of Nets coach Steve Nash’s assistants in Brooklyn last season, and he used his institutional knowledge throughout the series.
“They are an incredible team,” Durant told the Celtics. “They have a chance to do some great things.”
The second seeded Celtics are the winner of the first round series between the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks. Reigning champion Bucks has three games – one advantage, which is in Game 5 of his series on Wednesday.
The Nets, who had the second highest salary in the league this season, will try to re-calibrate. Nash Nets was hired in 2020 without the experience of a head coach and now he is leading two early seasons. (The Nets lost to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.) Irving, who could become an unlimited free agent, has said he intends to re-sign with the team. But he has only appeared in 29 games in the regular season this season because he has refused to be vaccinated against corovirus.
“I know a lot of people wanted to see our failures at this point, we were selected as contenders and we had so much to say at this point,” Irving said, “so I only use it as summer fuel.”
Irving added that he wanted to stay with Durant, whose contract with the Nets is for the 2025-26 season.
“When I say ‘I’m here with Kev’, I mean it really means running this franchise with Joe and Sean,” Irving said, referring to Joe Tsai, the team owner, and Sean Marks, the general manager.
The Nets Twin Trust has some work to do in the wake of an exciting season that was also hampered by mid-season trading with the Philadelphia 76ers, who bought James Harden in exchange for a package that included Ben Simmons, Seth Carr and a draft pick. Simmons arrived in Brooklyn with his back to him and said he had been dealing with mental health problems for months. He never appeared in shape.
As for Harden’s experiment, it was a bust. Harden, Durant and Irving played together in just 16 games over two seasons, including the playoffs.
“The hard part is that I think we’ve all grown a lot because of this year’s disaster,” Nash said. “We just didn’t get the benefits of this series or this season.”
Durant missed 21 games after stretching his knee in January, then played hard minutes in the regular season when the team struggled for a place in the playoffs.
“I think our boys are tired,” Nash said. “They’re tired.”
And there was a very famous absence of the team. Simmons watched the first three games of the series from the bench in street clothes. Harden now plays in Philadelphia. And Joe Harris, one of the team’s best shooters, had a bone fragment removed from his left ankle in November. When his rehabilitation failed, he underwent another surgical procedure in March, which ended his season.
Against the Celtics, the Nets missed Harris’s length in defense, as well as his ability to stretch the floor as a 3-point threat. As a result, the Celtics can become even more aggressive by pressing multiple defenders on Durant when he touches the ball.
“It’s just bigger and stronger in every position,” Nash said.
The series itself was a rapid descent into nonsense. After the Celtics’ Jason Tatum won his first game with Zummer, Irving used a few obscene words to describe his relationship with fans sitting in Boston. (The NBA then fined Irving $ 50,000 for making obscene gestures.) After the Nets defeated him in Game Two, Irving praised the Celtics’ young core and told reporters that “now is their time.” And after Durant fought in Game 3, he sounded confused at his post-game press conference. What could he do to keep the series going? He had no instant decisions.
On Monday, Durant tried to be more aggressive, finishing the match with a high 39 points and shooting 13 of 31 from the field. But Tetum had 29 points at the top of the Celtics, while Jalen Brown added 22.
“We had high expectations,” Durant said. “Everyone had great expectations from us. But a lot has happened throughout the season that has gotten in the way.