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

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The Brooklyn Nets are officially 0-1 with Kevin Durant coming back.

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

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

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

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

“I think overall we’re going for Ky, especially fourth because we know he can try,” said Jacque Vaughn of Irving’s performance. “Marcus Smart is a really good quarterback and they had guys on the rim when Ky got to the rim. I think he had some looks that he, I’ve seen him do before, so he’s completely confident in his ability to make shots for us, but also make the right call late in the game.

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

“I think giving the ball too many times,” Simmons said. “I know who I am. I know I need to get to the rim. I know I need buckets. It will also help my teammates to make them work.

TJ Warren was also a good 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 good start with a season-high 18 points.

The Celtics were led by a fairly even scoring effort, as six of their eight rotational 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 outscored the Nets, 48-31. While the Nets shot the three-pointer well at 38.2%, their scoring elsewhere was not equal, going just 14/35 (40%) in the mid lane.

Things got off to a pretty even start between the two depleted teams. Boston got good 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 shot on 7 self-created points. A pivotal point in the fourth came towards the very end when Kyrie Irving sat down; Ben Simmons created 5 unanswered points transitioning from a straight pass to Yuta Watanabe and a diagonal pass to Joe Harris for three. Brooklyn finished ahead 31–29 after one period of play.

Brooklyn exploded on a 10-4 run to start the second quarter, but then Boston returned the favor with an 8-0 run with Tatum sitting, a big win for Boston. Ben Simmons continued to play at an excellent pace, generating 10 assists in the first half, many of which were in transition. Royce O’Neale also had a good quarter at defensive end, taking out Malcolm Brogdon on a drive and then Grant Williams in transition. Things got fun at the end of the fourth when Irving and Tatum got into a firefight. Tatum stayed busy with 7 points with a pair of edge finishes, and Irving landed a close three over Robert Williams. The Celtics finished ahead, 60-57, at halftime.

Brooklyn started the third with a 10-6 run, increasing the pace of Boston’s failures 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 made the Celtics think twice about venturing into the paint. In what was a pretty fractured quarter, Boston finished ahead just 84-82.

Things started to unravel on Wednesday. Boston scored a plethora of buckets at the rim thanks to poor point-of-strike defense, and Kyrie’s disappointing night continued. With just under 10 minutes left, he turned the ball over against a Celtics double-team near midcourt, which immediately turned into a two-pointer for Boston. Vaughn was forced to call timeout after Boston went on an 8-2 run.

Boston extended that lead to 10 points as the Nets offense stalled. Irving did his best to run the show as the late Brooklyn’s sole creator, but fell short to a crowd of tough jumpers. In the end, the Celtics paid the Nets their second loss of the month of January.

“Give them credit,” Vaughn said of Boston’s fourth-quarter result. “Their defense took a step forward and we were unable to produce on the offensive side of the court.”

the movie theater

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

“We need to do things better, whether it’s hitting the basketball better, because Kevin can throw a shot for us and cover up some of our sins. Therefore, the shooting discrepancy cannot be the same. We can’t turn the same way,” Vaughn said after Wednesday’s practice. “So all the things that increase or decrease your margins, we have to be better.”

Even against a short-handed Boston team, the Nets’ biggest structural problems were on display because of that slim margin. The creation out of Kyrie Irving, for example, will rock many of Brooklyn’s games in the coming weeks.

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

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

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

The same could be said for possessions where Claxton was traded to the perimeter. Here, Claxton gets stuck on Derrick White at the three-point line to start. Seeing this, Marcus Smart tackles Joe Harris with the dribble and lobs Kornet into the bucket. While Simmons is a tenacious defender on the perimeter and assist, his short wingspan (7’0”) limits how much he can block shots and stop lobs.

“It definitely puts more pressure on him, I think in some ways,” said Jacque Vaughn of Claxton’s defensive role in the coming weeks. “A lot of times, with Kevin back there, they’d cover, whether Nic was guarding the perimeter, Kevin was still on the edge or vice versa. I think, schematically, we’re going to do some things to help Nic get closer to the rim at times, but he’ll still protect some perimeter players.

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

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

-The longest streak of his career.

-Longest streak by a player this season.

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

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

  • TJ Warren scored 20 points off the bench tonight, marking his second 20-point game of the season. Warren added a season-high 23 points on 12/26 at Cleveland.
  • Joe Harris added a season-high 18 points, shooting 7-of-11 and 4-of-7 from deep. It’s the most threes Harris has hit in a game since Dec. 2, when he hit five. In games he’s played 25 minutes or more, Harris is shooting 47.1, equal to what he’s shot in his last three full seasons before being injured last season.
  • And in a not quite 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, 0 points, on April 18, 2006, when he was backup to Jason Kidd in New Jersey.

What is the next

The Nets stay in Brooklyn to host the Oklahoma City Thunder. Coverage begins at 6:00 pm EST on the YES Network.

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