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Kyrie Irving’s near triple-double leads Nets past Celts, 109-104, to grab top spot

The Brooklyn Nets are once against atop the Eastern Conference.

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Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

A win for the record books ... and back on top of the Eastern Conference standings.

Behind the play of nine men, the shorthanded Nets defeated the Celtics, 109-104. With the victory, Brooklyn improves to 40-20 on the season and took sole possession of the No. 1 seed in the East over the slumping 76ers.

“Resilient,” said Jeff Green about the Nets after the win. “No matter who is on the floor, we’re going to go out and battle. We’re gonna do what’s needed for the night to figure out a way to get a W. We’ve been doing that all season regardless of who is on the court, and that gives confidence to coach going into games, especially when all the guys get back. It’s been great. The minutes that a lot of guys are getting are going to be big down the stretch for when we need it.”

It was an impressive win but it didn’t come easy.

The Nets entered the final 12 minutes of play nursing a 15-point lead but the Celtics came crawling back with their 3-point marksmanship. Boston forged an 11-0 run to cut the Nets lead to three with 3:31 remaining.

Brooklyn bounced back and regained the lead behind Joe Harris’ shooting - finishing with 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field and 4-of-7 from deep - and Kyrie Irving’s stellar defense. Irving, who recorded a season-high four steals - the most in a game for the Nets superstar since December of 2019 - had his best defensive performance of the season while finishing with a near triple-double of 15 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds in 34 minutes. All the more impressive when you look at Irving’s shooting line: just 4-of-19 from the field.

“Anytime you shoot 4-for-19, you’re never gonna be happy with that,” said Irving. “As a competitor, I was just trying to go out there and do the little things, the small details. Whether that be picking guys up or being in the right position.”

Head coach Steve Nash was inspired by Irving’s grittiness.

“Kai had some steals, assists didn't have his typical scoring night, but it’s few and far between that he doesn’t score the ball at a prolific rate,” Nash said on Irving’s performance. “I thought he definitely disrupted the basketball defensively and overall, he draws a lot of attention. I thought his teammates picked him up as well.”

Landry Shamet, who scored nine points on 3-of-8 shooting from the field and 1-of-4 from deep, hit two big free throws to grow the Nets lead to 105-99 with 26.0 seconds remaining. It was a foul game and a charity strike shootout to close out the contest. With 5.0 seconds remaining, Blake Griffin - who had a gritty performance of 13 points, five rebounds and three assists to go along with his team-high 10 charges in 14 games - hit two free throws to give the Nets a 107-101 lead.

“Blake’s a beast, man,” Brown said. “He does everything for us now - post-ups, scoring, hitting threes, getting defensive rebounds, taking charges. He’s done that since Detroit too, so he just does everything for us.”

Payton Prichard, the Celtics deep shooting rookie, kept Boston’s hopes alive, drilling a 27-foot three to cut the Nets lead to three with 2.2 seconds remaining. After a Nets timeout, Griffin safely inbounded the ball to Irving, who iced the game with two free throws against his former team to give Brooklyn the win.

The Nets have now won five-straight home games against the Celtics and the win cemented a season-sweep (3-0), marking the third sweep over Boston in franchise history and the first in a quarter-century.

“I think it’s good to go through those end of game situations, whether you are trying to get the ball in and get fouled or trying to take away a three-point shot at the end of the game. We obviously gave up the [Payton] Prichard three, that we didn’t like, but we got the ball in, executed, and made free throws. There were a lot of positive things in our performance and there was some sloppiness as well that let them back into the game,” Nash said. “Overall, a win is a win and this is a group that is a little bit tired and undermanned, so proud of them for getting the win.

To make things sweeter, Brooklyn outscored Boston 32-0 on fast-break points marking a new season-high for the Nets and clearly a season-low for the Celtics.

“We turned them over quite a bit tonight. They had 19 turnovers, so that got our break going. We want to run and push the ball. That’s a good sign,” Nash said. A lot of activity defensively. We made our fair share of mistakes but we made up for it with activity. [We] got a lot of hands on balls, deflections and things like that, that sparked our break.”

Mike James, the newest Net, impressed Friday, scoring eight points, grabbing two rebounds and handing two assists in 21 minutes in his first NBA game since February of 2018 as a member of the Pelicans. He finished a +17. James became the 27th different Net to see minutes this season, a franchise record.

“I thought he did great. It’s not an easy position to come in and meet your teammates for the first time and play in an NBA game on national TV,” Nash said. “I was really impressed by his pace, his ability to draw and kick, make the offense run faster and create openings for his teammates.”

The Nets had five of their nine players finished in double-figures in the win.

“You can’t win without it and that’s why we’re in the position we are in,” Nash said on balanced scoring. “We had 33 different starting lineups. We got different rotations, different combinations on the floor, and guys bought into the play we want to play to play for one another. Every night, it’s got to be someone else that steps up and has opportunities but also fits into what we want to do. You go down the line, guys made plays for us tonight.”

Steve Nash referred to Jayson Tatum as an “incredible scorer that makes it difficult on any defense.” Indeed, he finished with a game-high 38 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in 39 minutes. It didn’t take long for Boston’s rising star to get going. Tatum scored nine of the Celtics first 12 points in the opening minutes of play to go along with three rebounds and an assist.

Brooklyn struggled to defend Tristian Thompson on the boards early, snagging six in the quarter. With 3:55 remaining, James - the Nets newest 10-day guard - checked into the contest, marking his first NBA game since February of 2018.

The Nets held the Celtics to zero fast-break points in the first frame and Boston ended the first shooting 34.8 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from deep. Brooklyn outscored Boston in the paint (12-6) but was outrebounded 19-12 (5-1 on the offensive glass) and didn’t shoot well at all from deep, going 16.7 percent (1-of-6) in that category - trailing 25-21.

Brooklyn surged early in the second - forging a 12-0 run - leaving Brad Stevens to call a timeout with 9:20 remaining down five. James got extended minutes in the second, playing a total of 11 in the half.

It was evident the Celtics, coming off a back-to-back, looked fatigued in the closing minutes of the quarter and the Nets capitalized, building a 7-0 run to grow their lead to 55-41 with 2:39 remaining.

Brooklyn hit the break with a 60-51 lead, led by Green with 13 points, three assists and two boards on 3-of-5 shooting from deep. The Nets had five players score 7+ points in the first half and shot 48.9 percent overall and 47.1 percent from deep.

“I thought we picked up our pace. We started to play faster. We started to make quick decisions, put them in difficult decision-making decisions and I think that sparked us,” Nash said on the Nets second-quarter play.

Although nursing a nine-point lead, Brooklyn couldn’t find an answer for Tatum, who had a game-high 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field and 5-of-8 shooting from deep in 17 minutes. Other than Tatum, Thompson had eight points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes.

The Nets opened the third quarter with a nifty Harris assist to Jordan for the aggressive and-one-slam.

Brooklyn did a good job of getting to the charity strike in the third, hitting eight of their nine free throws to help grow their lead to 11 with 6:11 remaining. The highlights kept flowing for Brooklyn, courtesy of Bruce Brown, who put Luke Kornet on a poster midway through the third frame.

Brown, despite his foul trouble, finished with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including a 3-pointer to go along with eight boards in 27 minutes.

While Irving had his best defensive game of the season, Griffin provided the Nets with some gritty play in the closing minutes of the third. The former superstar (with enough residual chops to qualify as a star) took two consecutive charges, providing the catalyst to a big Brooklyn run, led by Harris.

Brooklyn exploded a 12-2 run - seven of which came from Harris - to head into the final 12 minutes of play with an 88-73 lead.

“I just thought we played a little sharper,” Nash said on the third-quarter play. “We forced some turnovers, in the right spots, made less mistakes with our decision-making defensively that led to the turnovers. It was a cleaner stretch defensively that fueled our break.”

The Film Room

His performance against Boston provided a hearty look at what Mike James brings to the table. In a nutshell, he’s an undersized 6’1” point guard who simply wants to score buckets, at all costs.

If there’s one thing to worry about with James, it’s the lack of space he creates while driving in the paint. In the first half, he drove an open lane but quickly lost the opening due to his lack of zip and size. The same thing happened later in the third quarter. How often he gets “two feet in the paint,” to use some hoops terminology, will be something to watch. His defense, as well, could be a sticking point.

Conversely, he can do this, so...

Like, excuse me? An in-and-out dribble into a corner three-pointer, wedged into a fadeaway shot with basically no space to ready his footwork? Okay, Mike James! We see you!

Not to mention, he’s got every trick in the book with regards to near-basket finishes to compensate for his lack of size and athleticism. Veteran machismo, in a word or two.

Again, watch the drive here. Though he doesn’t pierce all the way to the basket, he’s able to loft a wrong-footed fall-away layup off high-glass over the outstretched arms of Tristan Thompson. Not really breaking news here, but holy heck is that a difficult freaking shot.

For what he is, a 10-day contract player usurping third-guard guard minutes, he’ll provide what Brooklyn needs: A bucket — a flashy one, at that.

Nash on lack of need for a big man to replace LaMarcus Aldridge

In his post-game discussions with the media, Steve Nash suggested that the Nets have enough depth at the 5 that they didn’t have to replace like-with-like when LaMarcus Aldridge retired.

“We have four or five guys that can play center. So when we lost him, it wasn’t like a major need,” said Nash of Aldridge’s retirement. “He gave us an advantage and so we went after him and got him. When we lost him, I don’t know that there’s a need for us to get another center. I’ll leave it at that.”

On the other hand, the Nets have a yawning need for more ball handling, passing, etc. after James Harden, Chris Chiozza and Tyler Johnson went down. Thus the signing of Mike James out of the Euroleague.

Fastest to 40

Never in their NBA existence have the Nets gotten to 40 wins faster. It’s taken only 60 games. The Nets first Finals team in 2001-02 took 63 games. It took the 1974-75 ABA Nets 55 games.

There were other milestones beginning with the 32-0 fast break advantage. Both numbers are extraordinary. The Celtics who play with the 10th slowest pace in the NBA tried to slow things down at Barclays but to no avail. The Nets have been averaged less than 15 fast break points a game this season. In the Born-to-Run FInals season back in 2001-22, they averaged 19.1.

Blake Griffin now leads the NBA in charges, Griffin has drawn a league-leading 21 charges this season, two more than any other player (Kyle Lowry, Montrezl Harrell and Kemba Walker have drawn 19 apiece).

Mike James became the Nets 27th player this season, breaking the franchise record set last season. Another franchise record: 18 of those 27 have started at least one game!

Ramadan fasting leads to “adjustment,” says Kyrie

Kyrie Irving, a convert to Islam, said post-game that he, like hundreds of millions of his fellow Muslims, has been fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and that it’s led to some adjustments in his lifestyle.

“Yes I am taking part in Ramadan with a lot of my brothers and sisters, Muslim brothers and sisters,” said Irving. “and it’s been an adjustment. That’s really what I can say.

“It’s just being committed to my service to God, Allah. And then continuing on with whatever I’m guided with. I’m just happy to be part of my community and doing the right things. So, fasting is definitely is definitely part of it — if you know anything about the Muslim community. But yeah, just really blessed and grateful to be taking part of this...”

This year, Ramadan extends from the crescent moon on April 12 to crescent moon on May 12.

Kevin Durant wants the Knicks in playoffs

In a back-and-forth with a Knicks fan on Friday, the Nets superstar agreed that a playoff series between the Brooklyns and the Manhattans would be great. Actually, he said “I would love for that sh*t to happen.”

Here’s the full exchange...

The way things are looking now, there’s little chance the two could meet in the first round but a not insignificant chance they could face off in the conference semi-finals. We shall see.

Or as Sponge Bob might say...

Per Will Hanley.

What’s next

The Nets will be back in action Sunday afternoon when the team hosts the scorching Suns. The game is scheduled to tip at 3:30 PM ET.

“The Suns are as good as anyone in the league this year. They’ve been unbelievable. We have a huge challenge and we are again going to be undermanned. [We] are going to have to step up, play together, fight and have that winning spirit,” Nash said looking ahead to Sunday’s game against the Suns. “ We got our hands full on Sunday.”

Tyler Johnson’s return can come Sunday against his former team but Steve Nash said it’s “possible but not likely.” Meanwhile, Kevin Durant, all signs point to his return being “close,” though that may not necessarily mean imminent.

For a different perspective, check out CelticsBlog - our sister site covering the Boston Celtics.