If you told me that the James Harden-Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving trio would combine for 96 points, opposite 50 from Jayson Tatum and only 6 from Kemba Walker, I would’ve thought the Nets won that game by double figures.
But last night, the Jaylen Brown-less Boston Celtics were up by double figures with three minutes remaining and held off Brooklyn for a mildly surprising 125-119 win.
Harden had one of his best playoff performances ever, netting 41 points and dishing out 10 assists on 11 of 18 shooting from the field, 7-of-12 from three, and 12-of-13 on free throws. Durant added 39 points, nine rebounds, and four steals, shooting 13-of-24 from the floor, 4-of-9 from deep, and 9-of-12 on free throws. Irving struggled to finish with 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting, also hitting just 2-of-6 from three, but even so, the Nets received 96 points from their esteemed big three on a collective 26-for-53 from the field.
But their role players, a concern for people who haven’t picked them to go to the NBA Finals, as they’re favored to do, didn’t hold up their end in the loss to Boston. It clearly wasn’t the Tatum-Walker tandem that elevated Boston, considering how 50 of the 56 points came from one side; plus, Tatum also had 7 assists and 6 rebounds. But Marcus Smart dropped in 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting, making 5-of-8 from three and adding 6 assists. Tristian Thompson had 19 points and 13 rebounds. And Evan Fournier added 17, hitting 4-of-7 from deep.
But for the Nets — of the other five that scored — no one had more than eight points. Outside of their big three, they collectively shot 8-for-25, even as they recorded 11 bench points to the Celtics’ 10. But Joe Harris led all the “others” with eight points. The team is also without Jeff Green for an extended period, which hurts them. (And also says a lot about their depth.)
It’s probably not a big deal for this series, but away from the big three, the Nets will need meaningful contributions in order to fulfill their seeming long-standing status as championship favorites. To get this effort from Harden and Durant and still lose to this version of the Celtics is an anomaly. The Nets might not lose another game this season — as unlikely as it is, that is still an honest possibility. But … Here comes trouble: The new-look Milwaukee Bucks, assuming they finish off the Miami Heat tonight, would enter a potential Bucks-Nets semifinal rested, along with simply being much better than Boston.
Even in the absence of Donte DiVincenzo (whom Twitter is acting like swings a championship for them — relax), the Bucks are most equipped to deal with Brooklyn’s big three behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday. They’re also deeper than last year with Brook Lopez, who is playing like a big man again;, Bobby Portis, who should’ve been a Sixth Man of the Year contender; Bryn Forbes, who is 47 percent from three in the playoffs; Pat Connaughton, who is 53 percent from three in the playoffs, and PJ Tucker, who will probably switch onto any big three-member at some point. It’s not to say the Bucks will kick their ass, but it’s to highlight that they’re a far better team (as it relates to playoff basketball) than they were a season ago, and, in turn, a much stiffer challenge than Boston.
Brooklyn could still outscore anyone on any given night in any given series, but getting those points against Boston, and later, Milwaukee, are two different animals. Last night showed they better figure out some new tricks.