The Nets started off rusty and ice-cold. Out of sync and outplayed.
And they still pulled away to open their title chase with a 104-93 rout of Boston before a raucous sellout crowd of 14,391 at Barclays Center.
It bodes well for Brooklyn as they play themselves into form. And less so for the Celtics, who wobbled the Nets with their best defensive punch, but couldn’t take this first-round Game 1 even when it was being gifted to them on a silver platter.
Brooklyn trailed by 12 points in the second quarter, and half as much at the end of the first half. But the Nets reeled off an 18-4 run to open the second, and never looked back. They went ahead by as many as 17 and cruised.
The Nets — who couldn’t hit the broad side of Barclays Center early on, missing their first 10 attempts from 3-point range — suddenly got white-hot. They shot 6-of-8 in that decisive run — 4-of-6 from deep — and held Boston to 2-of-8 with four turnovers.
In Kevin Durant’s first playoff game since rupturing his Achilles tendon in the 2019 NBA Finals, he had 32 points and 12 rebounds, both game-highs. In Irving’s first postseason tilt against Boston — where he spent a tumultuous two years, and had a highly-scrutinized exit — he had 29 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter.
James Harden, dispelling questions of whether the Big 3 could coexist in the playoffs, had 21 points, eight boards and eight assists to flirt with a triple-double.
Granted, it wasn’t simple or easy. The Nets started the Big 3, Joe Harris and Blake Griffin, the first time they’ve ever used that starting lineup. In a season that saw a team-record 38 starting units, that’s the kind of year its been.
“I don’t think we have much choice. There are those lineups we all feel comfortable growing with and we kind of have to go with it. Whether there are growing pains through that, that’s fine. It’s somewhat to be expected,” coach Steve Nash said. “The playoffs are as much as anything about resolve and toughness and finding a way to fight through adversity, to bounce back. It’s not like 16-0.
“It’s about how tough can you be when you’re down? How tough can you be when you’re down in a series and the other team goes on a 12-0 run on the road? That’s what makes champions or makes teams that can contend or go deep in the playoffs. Those are the things that our team hasn’t done together. So I look forward to that, some of the growing pains, some of the moments that really test our resolve.”
The Nets had some pains Saturday and grew from them. They looked every bit the part of a team that hadn’t played in a week — and hadn’t played much together. They shot just 41.7 percent, and 8-of-34 from 3-point range.
Brooklyn stumbled out of the starting blocks and fell behind 13-4 early on a step-back 3-pointer by Jayson Tatum with 7:52 left in the first quarter.
The Nets got within 25-20 on a Harris pullup bank shot, but coughed up seven unanswered points. A Jabari Parker 3 left them down by a dozen.
It was still 53-47 to close the first half, with the Big Three shooting just 11-of-32 – and 0-for-11 from deep. But the Nets took the lead with a 7-0 run to start the second.
A Harden 3-pointer put Brooklyn ahead 54-53.
And down 57-54, they reeled off eight unanswered points.
An Irving 3 knotted it, and another by Durant — in Evan Fournier’s face — made it 60-57. Harden found Durant for a midrange jumper, rebounded a Marcus Smart miss and then drilled a step-back 3 of his own for a 65-57 cushion.
Brooklyn went up 72-63 on a Harris wing 3-pointer.
By the time Durant picked off a pass from Tristan Thompson to Tatum and went in for a dunk, it was 89-79. It ballooned to 99-82 on an Irving bucket with 2 ½ minutes left.
After Tatum had scored 50 in Boston’s play-in win — and had some nice first-half moments against Griffin — the Nets held him to 22 on 6-of-20 shooting.
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