The Nets made half their shots against the Celtics and made 12 threes on 29 attempts. They moved the ball for 25 assists on 39 field goals and six of their nine players who logged minutes scored in double figures.
But for the third game in a row, Celtics head coach Ime Udoka solved the great puzzle posed by the previously unguardable Kevin Durant.
Durant, who calls himself the Easy Money Sniper, has become Las Vegas’ Easy Money Under. It’s become the safest bet in all of basketball since the Celtics put the clamps on him in Game 1: Whatever Vegas thinks Durant is going to score, the Celtics have made it their life’s mission not to let him get there.
Thus has been the undoing of a superteam touted early-season championship contenders. For the third game in a row, Durant struggled against the physicality, length and creativity of a league-best Celtics’ defense that’s had every answer for KD’s every move. He only took 11 shots and scored 16 points to go with eight assists and five turnovers.
“That was a sh—y game, man. A s—-y game,” Durant said.
And the Nets succumbed to the Celtics’ defense in a 109-103 loss at Barclays Center — an arena that sounded more like Boston’s TD Garden with Celtics fans that flooded the empty seats long before tipoff, booed Kyrie Irving on his home floor, chanted MVP at superstar Jayson Tatum in the game’s waning moments and ultimately helped neutralize any advantage the Nets may have had playing in front of their hometown fans.
And now, the Nets find themselves down in the playoff series, 3-0, a deficit no team in NBA history has ever overcome. It’s almost time to break out the brooms. A sweep isn’t just on the table. The way the Celtics have bottled-up Durant and the Nets, it’s likely their season ends on Monday.
“Man, we know what it is,” Durant said of the series deficit. “I don’t think no speech or anything gonna do [anything] at this point in the year. We know what it is. We’ve got another game on Monday. Just come out and play.”
Call them the Durant Rules, and former Nets assistant-turned Celtics head coach Ime Udoka has set them. This team does not look like one set to defy the odds, make NBA history or even put forth a spirited effort with their season on the line on Monday.
If Durant holds the ball, his defender smothers him. If he puts the ball on the floor, a second defender darts his way. If he doesn’t have the ball, one defender denies the pass and another lurks to send help on the catch. And if he somehow battles through all that contact, all that friction between himself and the ball, he’s still got to make a shot, which through three games has been contested by approximately 2.5 defenders per attempt.
Udoka has crafted a game plan tailor-made to slow down the Nets’ all-world scorer, and as a result, Durant has become unrecognizable, more MarShon Brooks than Kobe Bryant. He said pregame Boston’s game plan was to take away Durant’s air space then send him toward the help off the dribble. It’s what they did to hold Durant to just 13-of-41 shooting with 12 turnovers in Games 1 and 2.
“[It’s been] more of same,” Udoka said after Game 3. “We’re making it tough, doing our work early. A lot of those deflections you guys spoke about or steals that we got were being in denial and being body-to-body, pushing the catches out, higher pickup points so they can’t walk into those three pointers.
“And if they have other guys shooting the most shots or scoring the most points, I feel like we’re in good shape.”
Through three games against the Celtics, Durant has only tallied 66 points and has turned the ball over 17 times. He doesn’t look sure of himself, has overthought almost every possession, and no longer looks like the best player on the floor. That title now belongs to Tatum, who scored 39 points on Saturday and has mirrored his offensive production with stifling defense on Durant in all three games of the series.
“I thought he was looking to find his teammates because he’s been loaded up on,” head coach Steve Nash said. “Probably passed on some looks because he’s expecting guys to come but I thought he tried to play the right way and we just obviously struggled a little bit connecting passes tonight.”
For reference, Durant averaged 42 points per game following a playoff loss last season and ended the regular season with the highest point-per-game average at 29.9.
Durant was despondent postgame. When asked what he needed to do differently to right the ship in Game 4, his answers came off more like questions.
“The first two games I just felt like there wasn’t a lot of space for me to operate to score, so I didn’t want to force it,” Durant said. “Maybe that’s the wrong decision coming into this game. Maybe I should have been more aggressive to score. I was just trying to play it the right way, trying to play it the right way and let the game come to me.
“Maybe shoot more, maybe just be smarter, catch the ball closer to the rim, play faster,” he continued before taking a long pause. “Catch and shoot more. I’ll try to figure it out by watching film tomorrow.”
Kyrie Irving only added 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting from the field and Bruce Brown led the Nets in scoring with 26 points. Seth Curry added 10 and Nic Claxton and Patty Mills combined for 25 off the bench. There was even a Blake Griffin sighting late in the third quarter, an eight-minute stretch that featured high energy, hustle and grit from the veteran All-Star who had been banished to an end of the bench role.
None of it matters, though, if Durant doesn’t shine, and so far the Celtics have found the answers to every question his unique blend of size, IQ and scoring ability creates.
And now, it’s almost time to break out the broom for an annual spring cleaning at Barclays Center.