Nets eliminated by the Celtics in the NBA Playoffs

Basketball fluctuates from player to player as the Celtics run their offensive, and Grant Williams found it as the first half was settling into Game 4 of Boston’s first round playoff series against the Nets Monday night at the Barclays Center.

Williams had plenty of room to line up his 3-pointer as he swung. The Nets still had time for one last lift before the break and the inbound pass went to Kyrie Irving with 2.1 seconds left. But instead of delivering a shot from the other side of the half of the field, he simply dropped the ball, which a referee could pick up as time went on.

It was a small moment – perhaps insignificant – but also revealing in its own way. Where was the desperation? Why not seize every opportunity? Admittedly, the Nets ran out of chances as the second half unfolded.

The Nets expected to compete for NBA championships, and maybe they will one day. But that day is not now. Another shortened postseason appearance ended on Monday as the Celtics defeated the Nets, 116-112, to complete a four-game sweep. It was an appropriate finale to an incoherent season for the seventh-seeded Nets, who spent months cycling through a motley crowd of characters. They were redeemed by injuries and absences, by a mishmash list that could not reveal a cohesive basketball brand, and finally by a superior opponent who put his suffocating hugs 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 coincidence 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 great things.”

Next for the second-seeded Celtics is the winner of the series in the first round between the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. Defending champion Bucks have a lead of three games against one as they go into 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 with no coaching experience whatsoever, and he has now spearheaded two early postseason exits. (The Nets lost to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.) Irving, who could become an unlimited free agent, has said he intends to sign the team again. But he only appeared in 29 games in the regular season this season due to his refusal to be vaccinated against coronavirus.

“I know so many people wanted to see us fail at this point, chose us as competitors and have so much to say at this point,” Irving said, “so I’m just using it as fuel for the summer.”

Irving added that he wanted to stay with Durant, whose contract with the Nets runs through the 2025-26 season.

“When I say I’m here with Kev, I think it really means we manage this franchise with Joe and Sean,” Irving said, referring to Joe Tsai, the team owner, and Sean Marks, the general manager.

The Nets’ brain confidence has some work to do in the wake of a turbulent season that was also interrupted by a mid-season 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 crooked back and said he had been dealing with mental health issues for several 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 hard part is that I think we all grew tremendously because of the adversity this year,” Nash said. “We just were not able to take advantage of it in this series or at this time of the season.”

Durant missed 21 games after spraining his knee in January, and then played heavy minutes late in the regular season as the team applied for a spot in the play-in tournament.

“I think our guys were worn out,” Nash said. “They are tired.”

And there was the team’s much talked about absence. Simmons watched the first three games of the series from the bench in streetwear. 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 suffered a setback, he underwent another surgical procedure in March that ended his season.

Against the Celtics, Nets missed Harris’ length in defense along with his ability to stretch the floor as a 3-point threat. As a result, the Celtics could be even more aggressive in sticking more defenders on Durant every time he touched the ball.

“Just bigger and stronger at every position,” Nash said.

The series itself was a rapid descent into futility. After the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum won Game 1 with a buzzer-beating layup, Irving used several swear words to describe his interactions with fans sitting on the field in Boston. (The NBA subsequently fined Irving $ 50,000 for making obscene gestures.) After the Nets were beaten in Game 2, Irving praised the Celtics’ young core and told reporters that “their time is now.” And after Durant struggled in Game 3, he sounded confused at his post-game press conference. What could he do at all to keep the series alive? He had no immediate solutions.

On Monday, Durant sought to be more aggressive, finishing with 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. “Everyone had high expectations of us. But a lot of things happened during the season that derailed us.”

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