BOSTON — So much has been made about the comings and goings of Kyrie Irving, and the potential comings and goings of Ben Simmons, it was easy to temporarily forget that inside the Nets’ new-edition Big 3 stands an old-edition Big 1. And that Big 1 does not answer to the name of Irving or Simmons.
Kevin Durant will have determined a lot of things about the Nets when this season is over. He will have a voice in coach Steve Nash’s future (if a first-round knockout at the hands of the Celtics imperils that future) and in just how massive the team’s free-agency investment will be in Irving.
But of greater consequence right now, Durant will determine if his Nets, the most talented and hyped seventh seed in recorded history, can recover from their 0-2 deficit and still win this series. The truth is, if Durant keeps playing the way he has in these first two games, the Nets will be booking preferred tee times at their local clubs before they ever get to a Game 6 in Brooklyn.
Three nights after he missed 15 of 24 shots and committed six turnovers in a heartbreaking Game 1 defeat, Durant was a shell of his otherworldly self, missing 13 of 17 attempts and committing another half-dozen turnovers while the Nets turned a 17-point lead late in the second quarter into a staggering 114-107 loss. Durant did go 18-for-20 from the free-throw line, saving his boxscore even when he couldn’t save his team.
Nash explained that the Celtics are being rough and tough with Durant, grabbing him and holding him and doing everything lesser lights do to frustrate superstars.
“He’s been uncomfortable,” the coach said, and out of rhythm, for good reason: Celtics rookie coach Ime Udoka has done a masterful job of throwing every tenacious defender except Bill Russell and John Havlicek at Durant, contesting and bothering nearly every KD jumper despite his 7-foot-5 wingspan.
“They’re playing two, three guys on me sometimes off the ball,” Durant said. “Two, three guys hit me wherever I go, and that’s just the nature of the beast in the playoffs.”
Just as the old Pistons had the Jordan Rules for MJ, the new Celtics have the Durant Doctrine for KD.
“They’re doing a good job,” Durant said. “It’s up to me to figure it out.”
Sooner much rather than later.
The Celtics are 40-1 all time when holding a 2-0 series lead, and it’s really hard to imagine them falling to 40-2 over the next 11 days. It’s impossible to imagine the Nets prevailing with this version of Durant, and the Game 2 version of Irving, who flipped TD Garden upside down Sunday before spending Wednesday night in the role of retreating bystander.
Though Boston fans booed Irving every time he touched the ball, and hit him with the usual profane chants, their rage seemed a bit tempered. Maybe it was the message the building operators repeatedly posted on the giant scoreboard about a zero-tolerance policy that would punish customers with ejections, bans and revocations of season tickets for disruptive behavior. Maybe not. Either way, Irving was not in the mood to play the pro-wrestling villain for a second straight game and, coincidentally or not, his performance flatlined.
It could’ve been the Nets’ big night anyway. Bruce Brown, Boston born, scored the game’s first nine points against his childhood team, and it sure looked as if the Nets were prepared to even the series. But this year’s Celtics are not last year’s Celtics. They have the league’s best defensive stopper (Marcus Smart) to fuel the league’s best defensive team, a legit franchise player (Jayson Tatum), a worthy sidekick (Jaylen Brown) and a coach (Udoka) who might take this team to places his predecessor Brad Stevens did not.
Nash conceded that these Celtics “outphysicaled” his Nets. That absolutely needs to change unless the Nets want to be swept into oblivion.
Of course, any comeback would have to start and end with Durant, who had more turnovers than field goals Wednesday night. Given Durant’s recent history of going off for 40 or so points in the immediate wake of a playoff defeat, everyone (including the Celtics) believed in the lead-up to Game 2 that he would attack the home team with bad intentions.
“That’s just the nature of top, top players,” Nash said as tip-off approached. “It’s very hard for them to have two bad games if they try, and the motivation obviously increases when they don’t have their best outing. So it’s normal for a top player when they have a bad game to have a big game the next night.”
Nash said he didn’t want Durant to feel the weight of that assumption, but hey, that’s why they pay KD the big bucks. Boston’s Grant Williams had said his fellow defenders needed to stay up in Durant’s face even when the Nets’ forward was “trying to just get a cup of water on the sidelines.”
During never got that cup of water. The Celtics never gave him a chance to breathe, never mind drink.
This is the outsized burden of greatness that Durant has regularly carried into the arena for most of his career. Before leaving Boston, he said he needs to watch the film, get better and play faster.
Either that will happen, or the Nets will soon be keeping score with birdies and bogeys.