The basketball zings from player to player when the Celtics run their offense, and it found Grant Williams as the first half was winding down in Game 4 of Boston’s first-round playoff series against the Nets on Monday night at Barclays Center.
Williams had oodles of space to line up his 3-pointer, which he swished. The Nets still had time for one last heave before halftime, and the inbounds pass went to Kyrie Irving with 2.1 seconds remaining. But rather than launch a shot from beyond half-court, he simply dropped the ball for a referee to retrieve as time elapsed.
It was a small moment – insignificant, perhaps – but also revealing in its own way. Where was the desperation? Why not seize every opportunity? Sure enough, as the second half played out, the Nets ran out of chances.
The Nets were expecting to vie for NBA championships, and perhaps some day they will. But that day is not now. Another abbreviated postseason appearance ended on Monday when the Celtics defeated the Nets, 116-112, to complete a four-game sweep. It was a fitting finale to a disjointed season for the seventh-seeded Nets, who spent months cycling through a motley cast of characters. They were undone by injuries and absences, by a mishmash roster that could not unearth a coherent brand of basketball, and, finally, by a superior opponent that put its suffocating clamps on two of the planet’s best players.
The Celtics produced the league’s top-ranked defense in the regular season, and they proved it was no fluke 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 applied his institutional knowledge throughout the series.
“They’re an incredible team,” Durant said of the Celtics. “They have a chance to do some big things.”
Next up for the second-seeded Celtics is the winner of the first-round series between the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks. The defending champion Bucks have a three-game-to-one lead entering Game 5 of their series on Wednesday.
The Nets, who had the second-highest payroll in the league this season, will try to recalibrate. Nash was hired by the Nets in 2020 without any head coaching experience, and he has now presided over two early postseason exits. (The Nets lost to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.) Irving, who can become an unrestricted free agent, has said he intends to re-sign with the team. But he appeared in only 29 regular-season games this season because of his refusal to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“I know so many people wanted to see us fail at this juncture, picked us up as contenders, and have so much to say at this point,” Irving said, “so I’m just using that as fuel for the summer.”
Irving added that he wanted to stick with Durant, whose contract with the Nets runs through the 2025-26 season.
“When I say I’m here with Kev, I think that really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe and Sean,” Irving said, referring to Joe Tsai, the team’s owner, and Sean Marks, the general manager.
The Nets’ brain trust has some work to do in the wake of a turbulent season that was also interrupted by a midseason trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired James Harden in exchange for a package that included Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and draft picks. Simmons arrived in Brooklyn with a balky back and said he had been dealing with mental health issues for months. He never appeared in uniform.
As for the Harden experiment, it was a bust. Harden, Durant and Irving played together in just 16 games over two seasons, including the playoffs.
“The tough part is that I think we all grew a tremendous amount because of the adversity this year,” Nash said. “We just weren’t able to benefit from it in this series or at this stage of the season.”
Durant missed 21 games after spraining his knee in January, then played heavy minutes late in the regular season as the team scrambled for a spot in the play-in tournament.
“I think our guys wore it down,” Nash said. “They’re tired.”
And there were the team’s highly publicized absences. 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 particle removed from his left ankle in November. When his rehabilitation had a setback, he underwent another surgical procedure in March that ended his season.
Against the Celtics, the Nets missed Harris’s length on defense along with his ability to stretch the floor as a 3-point threat. As a result, the Celtics could be even more aggressive about sticking multiple defenders on Durant whenever he touched the ball.
“Just bigger and stronger at every position,” Nash said.
The series itself was a swift descent into futility. After the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum won Game 1 with a buzzer-beating layup, Irving used several profanities to describe his interactions with fans who were sitting courtside in Boston. (The NBA subsequently fined Irving $ 50,000 for making obscene gestures.) After the Nets got thumped in Game 2, Irving heaped praise on the Celtics’ young core, telling reporters that “their time is now.” And after Durant struggled in Game 3, he sounded baffled at his postgame news conference. What could he possibly do to keep the series alive? He did not have any immediate solutions.
On Monday, Durant sought to be more aggressive, finishing with a game-high 39 points while shooting 13 of 31 from the field. But Tatum had 29 points to lead the Celtics, and Jaylen Brown added 22.
“We had high expectations,” Durant said. “Everybody had high expectations for us. But a lot of things happened throughout the season that derailed us. ”