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Eliminated: Nets suffer first-round sweep, losing to Celtics, 116-112

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Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Eliminated.

The Brooklyn Nets, who entered the regular season as the title favorites, become the only team in the first round of the NBA playoffs to be swept. A season like no other for the Nets concluded with a 116-112 loss to the Celtics at Barclays Center Monday night.

For the head coach, it was another disappointing loss, similar to so many others in the season. “Maybe they ran out of gas,” Nash said, in a comment that could apply to the larger context of the 2021-22 season.

“It felt like there were a few stories unfolding. At halftime, we told the players, ‘we got to all come back and rebound. They had a lot of second-chance points to none at the half. We missed a bunch of free throws in the first half. The second half, I felt our guys really battled. Maybe they ran out of gas. Maybe we needed to score the ball, we went small, and it takes a toll on these guys to have to cover bigger guys all night, keep them off the glass, and still fly around and play fast with a small lineup. In the end, that wore our guys down and we weren’t able to make enough plays.”

As for an obituary on 2021-22, Nash had this to say. “Over the course of the season. There were just too many [things].”

The series final score: Celtics 4, Nets 0. It was the fourth time the Nets have been swept in a playoff series, but the first in Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving’s careers. For the two superstars, it was a bitter journey from being part of the “Clean Sweep” in June 2019 when they announced they were headed to Brooklyn, to a playoff sweep. The Nets have won only one playoff series, last year when they beat the Celtics in a 4-1 “gentlemen’s sweep.”

Durant didn’t go down without a fight and had a bounce-back offensive performance of a game-high 39 points (13-of-31 shooting from the field and 3-of-11 shooting from 3-point range) to go with seven rebounds, nine assists, a steal, and four turnovers in 47 minutes of play.

“I’ll miss going to the gym, miss the routine, getting ready for games. What we do, we have the best jobs in the world doing your passion for a living. When it ends like that, you start thinking about the whole year,” said Durant after the Game 4 loss. “Give credit to the Celtics first off. They’re an incredible team. They have a chance to do some big things the rest of the playoffs. They played amazing.”

Kyrie Irving, who was passive on the offensive end for a heavy majority of the elimination contest, finished with 20 points on 6-of-13 shooting overall and 2-of-3 shooting from behind the arc. Irving dished five assists, grabbed five rebounds, swatted two shots, and turned over the ball twice in 45 minutes of play.

“Disappointment. A little sadness because we didn’t play as well as a team as we wanted to. We can throw out all the things that happened this season, but just heavy emotionally and now that the series is done and we can congratulate the Boston Celtics for doing what they came to do and do what they’re supposed to do,” Irving said. “More importantly on the positive side, just motivation.

“It’s burning in my heart right now I know so many people wanted to see us fail at this juncture, pick us as contenders, and have so much to say at this point. I’m just using that as fuel for the summer.”

Seth Curry had a solid sharpshooting performance, concluding with 23 points (9-of-13 shooting from the field and 5-of-9 shooting from 3-Point range) in 38 minutes. Curry, who commonly generated his own offense, had four rebounds, two assists, and two steals in the Game 4 loss. The sharpshooter dealt with foul trouble early in the first half. Goran Dragic delivered a good contribution off the bench with 10 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and a steal in 24 minutes.

“We just weren’t good enough. They were just better. They swept us,” said Dragic who turned down five other teams to join his old mentor, Nash. “The first game was a winnable game for us. From there on, maybe the series would go a different way. In the end, they just dominated us especially second-chance points, rebounding, just everything. They deserve to win.”

Nic Claxton, who set an NBA record for most consecutive misses from the free-throw line in a playoff game, did everything well aside from that. The young big man went 6-of-6 from the field to end with a bench-leading 13 points to go with six boards, two assists, and three blocks. Blake Griffin gave it his all despite not scoring, ending with three rebounds, four assists, a steal, and two key charges in 18 minutes.

“I just felt like Nic’s been our most productive center at both ends. BG had so much fight in him. I thought he played well, so we went with them,” said Nash on giving more minutes to Claxton and Griffin over Andre Drummond. “We tried to save his [Claxton] minutes, as long as we were cognizant of his conditioning abilities to play a lot of minutes hasn’t been easy for him at times. That was really the thinking: try to make sure we had Nic there to be able to finish games. He’s done a lot for us on both ends. I thought that was why Andre’s minutes were limited tonight.”

After turning over the ball 21 times in Game 3, the Nets did a better job of taking care of the ball but the Celtics took full advantage when turnovers occurred. Boston turned Brooklyn’s 10 turnovers into 16 points while the Nets flipped the Celtics’ 13 turnovers into 18 points. The difference-maker was second-chance points and being outmatched physically.

“Second-chance points, turnovers, and they were just more physical,” Brown said. “Give credit to them. They played extremely hard. They fought every night so got to give them credit.”

The Nets didn’t tinker with their starting lineup, putting out Durant, Irving, Seth Curry, Bruce Brown, and Andre Drummond for Game 4. The first six minutes of the first quarter included a total of nine fouls — six of which came on the Nets. Out of those six, Curry had three of them in less than four minutes and was sent to the bench early. Despite putting Boston in the bonus at the 7:30 mark — a common flaw across the series — Brooklyn played with more energy and Durant (11 points in the first) scored seven of the Nets' first 12 points. At the 6:36 mark, the Nets trailed by three points (15-12).

Out of the Celtics timeout, Boston picked up their intensity defensively, leaving Brooklyn with no answers of a response. The Celtics forged a 10-0 run spanning nearly three minutes to go up 10 points against the really-small Nets. Although Brooklyn went 2-of-8 from the foul line (all six misses coming off the hands of Claxton), the Nets remained strong and ended the first quarter trailing by four points (30-26).

The Nets played smarter basketball to start the second, knotting the contest at 30 in the opening minutes before Tatum got cooking, hitting a pair of triples and tough shots to take the lead back for Boston. After Brooklyn knotted the game at 30-30, Boston ran away with a 12-4 burst to take a 42-34 lead at the 6:21 mark of the second.

Brooklyn came out of their timeout running in transition, which boosted a 10-3 run and sliced Boston’s lead to just one point (45-44). That was the closest the Nets got to a lead to finish off the second quarter. The Celtics got a pair of 3-Pointers by Grant Williams in the left corner to propel an eight-point lead at the break (58-50).

Despite Brooklyn’s offense shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from 3-Point range, the team went 6-of-13 from the charity stripe with all their misses coming from Claxton. Durant led the Nets with 20 points (7-of-15 shooting overall and 2-of-5 shooting from behind the arc) while Irving was passive, going for only seven points on five shots attempts in 23 minutes. The Celtics did not attempt a free throw in the second quarter.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nets continued to lack an answer for the Celtics in the third quarter. Claxton, who missed his 10th straight free throw, finally got one to fall midway through the quarter to bring Brooklyn within seven points. Boston held a 10-point lead for the majority of the third and Tatum, who got going in the frame, started to smell blood against the small Nets — a lineup that featured four guards and Durant. At the end of the third, Boston held a 12-point lead (90-78).

Brooklyn opened the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run while Jayson Tatum was on the bench to slice Boston’s 12-point lead to six with 10:08 left. Despite getting off on the right foot, Tatum reentered the game and answered with his own 5-0 run to make it an 11-point lead. On their next trip down the floor, Tatum picked up his fifth foul after Griffin drew his second charge of the game — a call Ime Udoka unsuccessfully challenged and sent the Celtic star back to the bench.

The contest shifted at the 2:46 mark of the fourth. Tatum picked up his sixth and final timeout with the Celtics holding a seven-point lead. On the other end of the floor, Irving cashed a 3-Pointer to make it a three-point game. Durant followed with a runner to make it a one-point game (109-108) with 1:28 left.

“Of course when the best players get six fouls, you’re happy because he’s [Tatum] the head of the snake. He’s their best player,” said Dragic on Tatum’s ejection being a late turning point. “Boston’s a good team who plays together. When he went on the bench, a lot of guys who play hard. Down the stretch, we didn’t get good quality shots and they did.”

Boston held a 111-108 lead entering the final minute of play. Brooklyn got a big stop and off the rebound, Marcus Smart fouled Durant in the backcourt and sent him to the charity stripe with 22.2 seconds left. The Nets superstar split his trip at the foul line but on the other end of the floor, the Celtics pushed it in transition. Off a missed layup by Smart, no one was boxing out Al Horford, resulting in an easy putback to put Boston up 113-109 with 13.7 seconds remaining.

Brooklyn tried to get a quick bucket in hopes of cutting the deficit to one but Durant missed the 26-foot triple. Patty Mills quickly fouled Smart and his two free throws to ice the Celtics sweep and eliminate the Nets.

The Film Room

It was like watching the same game for the fourth-straight time. The Nets fell short against the Boston Celtics because of a disconnected defense, a lack of size, poor effort on the glass, and generally speaking, a lack of heart as a group.

Let’s begin.

Look, if anyone could let us know what the heck the Nets were trying to do on defense in the clip below, we’d love to know.

The Nets almost immediately begin in a hole when Kyrie Irving and Bruce Brown get completely lost while trying to switch on this Jaylen Brown ball screen, leaving Robert Williams wide open underneath the hoop. This forces Kevin Durant to help over as the “low man” with Brown now late while recovering back to Williams, opening up the skip pass to Grant Williams, who went 4-for-6 from deep, in the corner. Goran Dragic ball-watches instead of bumping down to the Williams, and the 23-year-old forward gets a look without even a single hand in his face. Talk about a disastrous possession from nearly every single Net on the floor.

Here is yet another horrendous defensive possession by the Nets. Nicolas Claxton begins by picking up Jayson Tatum at the top of the arc but does himself a disservice by shuffling his feet instead of staying in his defensive stance, allowing for easy paint penetration. Daniel Theis, meanwhile, screens and slips into the paint, which forces Kevin Durant to “tag” the unattended Celtic center as the low man. Kyrie Irving... guards pretty much no one, and Patty Mills ball-watches instead of playing in the gap between Al Horford and Marcus Smart. A pretty dime from Jayson Tatum leads to yet another back-breaking Boston three.

Now, about that lack of size. The Celtics preyed on the roster construction of this Nets team, its lineups sometimes featuring as many as 3 small guards on defense. Seth Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Patty Mills were all hunted down in mismatches by the Celtics’ star wing duo, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and here, Tatum is completely unperturbed by Kyrie Irving’s closeout after this pick-and-pop three. It looks like he’s shooting over chairs out there!

Even when the Nets rotated somewhat properly as a defense, size bit this team where it hurts. Nic Claxton’s switchability is a luxury, for sure, but it can also doom the team when he’s pulled away from the rim as the only big man. Here, he switches out onto Marcus Smart and gets beat off the dribble, and when Bruce Brown helps as the “low man” to stop the drive, it’s Kyrie Irving who is tasked with sinking down to Robert Williams... which obviously goes as expected. He stands no chance on the lob.

Targetting Brooklyn’s smallest players in transition was a theme for the Celtics throughout the entire series. It's how Jaylen Brown scored the crucial layup in Game 1 to bring the score within 1 with just under 40 seconds to spare, and here, he locates Patty Mills on the fastbreak and completely overwhelms him with size and athleticism.

“At the end of the day, I think they were just out-physical, bigger, and stronger in every position,” said Steve Nash after the game.

Of course, what Nash failed to mention was Brooklyn’s collective heart; the care, or lack thereof, to leave it all out on the floor for all 48 minutes. Nothing emblematizes the Nets’ playoff run more than the possession below. After Kevin Durant missed what could’ve been the free throw to bring Boston’s lead down to one, Marcus Smart pushes the break and is stifled by great defense from Blake Griffin. Yay, a great start!

Here’s where the trouble begins: Kyrie Irving fails to put a body on Al Horford on the glass, and Kevin Durant, the only other big man on the floor, jogs back on defense instead of helping his smaller teammate on the glass. Just an utter abject of duty from the two superstars on the team.

It’s undeniable that the Nets are going to have their work cut out for them while tinkering and building this championship roster. But in order to come away successful, a culture of accountability must be set in stone from the top-down. These mistakes cannot happen should this team want to reach its full potential.

Milestone Watch

Per Josh Eberly, Canadian hoops writer: “Going back to 1984-85, every preseason favorite to win the NBA championship has gone on to win at least ONE playoff game — until now.

“The Brooklyn Nets are the first team in recorded history to start the year as the title favorite and fail to win at least one playoff game…”

Pretty much sums it up.

No Simmons on bench

After manning the bench in increasingly high fashion the first three games of the first round, Ben Simmons was absent for Game 4. A team insider said he chose not to join the team because of the back pain he experienced Sunday after a contact practice Saturday.

As Sponge Bob might say...

What’s next

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The NBA Draft is June 23 at Barclays Center.

For a different perspective on Game 4, check out CelticsBlog — our sister site covering the Boston Celtics.