The Nets still can’t overcome the Celtics, losing 109-98

The Brooklyn Nets are officially 0-1 with Kevin Durant on the mend.

“One less guy to get open,” said Ben Simmons about playing without Durant. “When you’re without Kevin, who can score at will, it takes a lot of pressure off of everybody. Us collectively, we have to understand that and play a certain way with pace movement and play team basketball.”

The Nets fell short to the Boston Celtics, 109-98, in Brooklyn’s first game without their injured star, Durant. Brooklyn has now lost nine consecutive games against Boston dating back to last year’s regular season and playoffs. With the loss, Brooklyn has now fallen behind Boston by three games for the first seed in the Eastern Conference.

Both teams entered the contest fairly shorthanded. As mentioned, Brooklyn was without its MVP candidate, Kevin Durant, while Boston was without two of its starters, Al Horford and likely All-Star Jaylen Brown.

Kyrie Irving had another tough game against his former team, the Celtics, putting up a team-high 24 points on a poor 9-of-24 shooting night.

“I think overall we’re going to go to Ky, especially in the fourth because we know he can get a shot,” said Jacque Vaughn about Irving’s performance. “Marcus Smart’s a pretty good defender and they’ve got guys at the rim when Ky got to the rim. I think he had some looks that he, I’ve seen him make before so totally trust his ability to make shots for us but make the right decision at the end of the game as well.”

Ben Simmons also had a very odd stat line—13 assists (a season-high) and 9 rebounds, very good, but 0 points on just three total field goals.

“I think giving the ball a few too many times,” said Simmons. “I know who I am. I know I need to get to the rim. I know I need to get buckets. That’s also going to help my teammates to get them going.”

TJ Warren was also a nice spark off the bench with 20 points on 9-of-18 shooting, his second-highest scoring night of the season. Joe Harris also had a nice outing with 18 points, which represented a season-high.

The Celtics were led by a fairly balanced scoring effort, as six of their eight rotation players reached double figures.

The two main areas that have hurt the Nets this season, points in the paint and rebounding, came to bite Brooklyn on Thursday. Boston outscored Brooklyn in the painted area, 54-40, and outrebounded the Nets, 48-31. Although the Nets shot the three-ball well at 38.2%, their scoring elsewhere was not up to par, going just 14/35 (40%) in the midrange.

Things got off to a fairly even start between both of the depleted teams. Boston got some nice production from Jayson Tatum (7 points) and Grant Williams (also 7 points). Brooklyn, meanwhile, got solid contributions from Joe Harris with 10 points on a series of drives, as well as TJ Warren, who pitched in 7 mostly self-created points of his own. A crucial point in the quarter came at the very end when Kyrie Irving sat; Ben Simmons created 5 unanswered points in transition off a hit-ahead pass to Yuta Watanabe and a diagonal pass to Joe Harris for three. Brooklyn finished ahead 31-29 after one period of play.

Brooklyn erupted on a 10-4 run to start the second quarter, but then Boston returned the favor with an 8-0 run as Tatum sat, a huge win for Boston. Ben Simmons continued to play with outstanding pace, generating 10 first-half assists, many of which came in transition. Royce O’Neale also had a nice quarter on the defensive end, stripping Malcolm Brogdon on a drive and then Grant Williams in transition. Things got fun at the end of the quarter when Irving and Tatum got into a little bit of a shootout. Tatum got busy with 7 points with a pair of finishes at the rim, and Irving hit a contested three over Robert Williams. The Celtics finished ahead, 60-57, at halftime.

Brooklyn started the third on a 10-6 run by pushing the pace off Boston’s misses to create transition opportunities. Although Boston closed the gap, Nic Claxton was absolutely monstrous defensively with 3 blocks in less than 8 minutes. His defensive effort alone caused the Celtics to think twice about venturing into the paint. In what was a fairly chippy quarter, Boston finished ahead by just 84-82.

Things started to unravel in the fourth. Boston scored a multitude of buckets at the rim thanks to weak point-of-attack defense, and Kyrie’s disappointing night continued. At just under the 10-minute mark, he turned over the ball against a double-team from the Celtics near midcourt, which immediately turned into two points for Boston. Vaughn was forced to call timeout after Boston went on an 8-2 run.

Boston grew that advantage to 10 points as the Nets’ offense stalled. Irving did his best to run the show as Brooklyn’s only late creator but fell short on a multitude of tough jumpers. In the end, the Celtics handed the Nets their second loss in the month of January.

“Give them credit,” said Vaughn about Boston’s fourth-quarter finish. “Their defense took a step up and we couldn’t produce on the offensive end of the floor.”

The Film Room

If there’s one thing that tonight’s game showed, it’s that Brooklyn’s margin of error without Durant has shrunk… significantly.

“We’ll need to do things better, whether that is rebounding the basketball better because Kevin can make a shot for us and cover up some of our sins. So the shot discrepancy can’t be the same. We can’t turn it over the same,” said Vaughn after Wednesday’s practice. “So all the things that increase or decrease your margins, we just got to be better at.”

Even against a shorthanded Boston team, the Nets’ biggest structural issues were on full display because of that reduced margin. Creation outside of Kyrie Irving, for example, is going to swing many of Brooklyn’s games over the next few weeks.

Although the Nets got great production out of Simmons for the first three-quarters, his absence as a scorer was felt tenfold in the fourth. Boston’s blitz on Irving in the fourth that led to a transition bucket could very well be the play that swung the game. Brooklyn just didn’t have enough creation outside of Irving to close what would eventually be an unconquerable 10-point deficit.

Brooklyn was solid defensively, holding Boston to a 116 defensive rating. Still, Brooklyn’s flaws as a defense—which are few and far between—were attacked by Boston at key points in the game.

For example, when Brooklyn went small with Ben Simmons at center while Nic Claxton sat, Boston immediately attacked the Nets with lobs to their bigs, Luke Kornet and Robert Williams, against the smaller Nets backline.

The same can be said in possessions where Claxton was switched out to the perimeter. Here, Claxton gets stuck on Derrick White at the three-point line to begin. Seeing this, Marcus Smart attacks Joe Harris off the dribble and throws up a lob to Kornet for the bucket. Although Simmons is a tenacious defender on the perimeter and in help, his short wingspan (7’0”) limits how much he can block shots and deter lobs.

“Definitely puts more pressure on him, I think in a few ways,” said Jacque Vaughn about Claxton’s defensive role in the coming weeks. “A lot of times with Kevin back there they would cover for each other whether Nic was guarding the perimeter, Kevin was still at the rim or vice versa. I think schematically we’ll do some things to help Nic be closer to the rim at times but he’ll still guard some perimeter players.”

This, among many things, will be a big test for the Nets going forward. Get well soon, KD!

Milestone Watch

  • Nic Claxton (three blocks) has now blocked at least three shots in seven straight games.

– Longest streak of his career.

– Longest streak for a player this season.

-Longest streak for a Net since Shawn Bradley in March 1996 (franchise-record-tying 11 straight).

He remains the NBA’s leading shot blocker at 2.6 blocks per game.

  • TJ Warren has recorded 20 points off the bench tonight, marking his second 20-point game of the season. Warren tallied a season-high 23 points on 12/26 at Cleveland.
  • Joe Harris tallied a season-high 18 points, shooting 7-of-11 and 4-of-7 from deep. That’s tjhe most threes Harris has hit in a game since December 2, when he hit five. In games where he’s played 25 or more minutes, Harris is shooting 47.1, equal to what he shot in his last three full seasons before getting hurt last season.
  • And in not-quite a milestone, Ben Simmons recorded 13 assists — his Nets high; nine rebounds; and no points. As Chris Milholen noted, This is the 18th time an NBA player has had 0 points and at least 13 assists in the regular season. In fact, Jacque Vaughn is one of those 13 players: 13 assists and 0 points, April 18, 2006 when he was backing up Jason Kidd in New Jersey.

What’s next

The Nets stayed in Brooklyn to host the Oklahoma City Thunder. Coverage begins at 6 PM EST on the YES Network.

For a different perspective on tonight’s game, head to CelticsBlogour Celtics sister site.

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