The Brooklyn Nets can sleepwalk through their first-round series with the Boston Celtics, and they basically did in Game 1. The question is whether they will wake up before their championship mettle is really tested.
Brooklyn’s 47 first-half points on Saturday night was their lowest total in any game this season but one — a Jan. 8 outing against the Memphis Grizzlies in which Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden were not in uniform. They combined to make 11 of their 32 shots and none of their 11 3-pointers in the opening half. As a team, the Nets shot 41.7% from the field and 23.5% from distance in the game. And they still rolled.
They didn’t really get rolling until the third quarter, when Harden sandwiched two step-back 3’s around the first long-distance connections of the night from both Irving and Durant. The superstar trio’s run spanned 183 seconds and turned a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead that felt insurmountable for Boston.
And that was all they needed to cruise to a 104-93 victory in their playoff opener.
“We knew it was a matter of minutes before things started to turn for us,” Durant told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after scoring a game-high 32 points on 10-for-25 shooting — an off night from legendarily efficient scorer.
A matter of minutes.
That will work against a Boston team that is missing Jaylen Brown and reliant on fourth-quarter minutes from Jabari Parker, who was making only his 11th appearance with the team after signing off the scrap heap in April. Brooklyn’s effort on defense was sporadic, dialed up only when the fly needed swatting. Durant’s work opposite Celtics star Jayson Tatum (22 points on 6-for-20 shooting) was encouraging, but the 8-for-26 shooting from Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier was hardly the result of top-flight defense.
“We can attack it better,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters after the loss.
“I felt like I had some good looks,” Tatum said of his field goal-less second half. “Tough shooting night.”
Brooklyn’s defense ranked 22nd in the league this season, and it showed in the first half against the Celtics. A Boston team that struggled to generate clean looks all season was suddenly getting whatever it wanted. All it took was the Nets actually trying on defense for minutes at a time to rattle off an 18-4 run to start the third quarter and a 17-3 run midway through the fourth that turned a competitive game into a decisive win.
It was the NBA equivalent of giving your little brother a glimmer of hope in a driveway game of one-on-one, only to dial up the effort just enough to ruin his night. Teams like the Milwaukee Bucks or Miami Heat in the next playoff round and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals, much less LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers in a potential NBA Finals meeting, are not about to let Brooklyn treat them like a rugrat.
It remains to be seen whether the Nets can be engaged on defense for more than minutes at a time.
There is an enormous onus on Brooklyn’s offense, and it was far from sharp in Game 1. Saturday marked just the ninth time all season Durant, Irving and Harden shared the floor together. It too showed. Brooklyn’s trio of superstars essentially traded off ill-fated isolations throughout the first half. There was a bit more ball movement between them in the second half, but really they just relied on each of their individual greatness.
Durant credited their first-half struggles to unsettled nerves, but it sure looked like a cohesiveness issue.
Again, Durant, Irving and Harden operating independently against Parker, Walker and Fournier is going to favor Brooklyn for eternity, but they will have to tap into their limitless potential as creators for each other in order to cook against defenses without so many weak links. There is no question the Nets will advance out of this round, but there is still plenty left to answer before they should consider themselves a title favorite.
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