Two games into their first-round playoff series, it looked like the Nets might be on their way to a 4-0 sweep. But after jumping out to a 19-4 lead in Game 3, they allowed Jayson Tatum to go off for 50 points, lost the physical battle to the Celtics and were jeered out of TD Garden by a 25% capacity crowd of 4,789 that heaped verbal abuse on Kyrie Irving, the ex-Celt that Boston fans love to hate.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, Nets coach Steve Nash put his worst fear into words of warning. "They got themselves going, and so they took the momentum, their crowd with them," Nash said. "They started to feel a little confidence for the first time in three games . . . They definitely are going to have belief now. Big challenge for us."
The Celtics are counting on their newfound life to light a fire beneath their rabid fans when TD Garden allows a "near-capacity" crowd of 17,226 into the building for the first time this season for Game 4 Sunday night.
Celtics center Tristan Thompson, who set the physical tone and scored 19 points and had 13 rebounds, including nine offensive boards, could not contain his excitement for the possibilities offered by Game 4.
"I can’t [expletive] wait until Sunday — 17,000, green, I’m going to see the leprechaun, I can’t wait!" Thompson exulted. "That’s what Boston is all about, that’s what the fans are about. They are going to give us that life, that juice, that energy. They haven’t seen us all in this arena in a long time, so I know everyone is excited. I’m super excited.
"We’re going to need the fans rocking. We need to blow this [expletive] roof off. We need to have them rock so loud that if the coach calls a timeout, the rest don’t even hear . . . So let’s get it rocking. Let’s dance and have a good time."
Obviously, the catalyst is the antipathy Celtics fans feel toward Irving, who reneged on his promise to remain in Boston and left to join the Nets in free agency two years ago. He was booed every time he touched the ball in Game 3 and heard chants of ‘Kyrie sucks!’ and ‘[Expletive], Kyrie!’" At a couple of points, Irving waved his hands as if urging the crowd to bring it on.
Before practice on Saturday, Nash was asked if he thought Irving had an off night, scoring 16 points on 6-for-17 shooting, because of the attention he brought on himself by saying after Game 2 that he hoped Boston fans would not engage in any racial taunts.
"I know Ky didn’t have his typical game," Nash said. "I don’t want to make any correlations to the fans in him having that game . . . We know how good he is, we know that he can handle any environment, and we know that he can play much better in Game 4."
Asked if it was a mistake by Irving to egg the fans on with his gestures, Nash said, "If that’s what gets him going, you have to be yourself. Some players come alive in that moment, some don’t. I’m not against it if that’s what gets him going."
James Harden, who led the Nets with 41 points, insisted the crowd reaction was not a distraction that took the Nets out of their game, and Irving also downplayed the impact as long as it remains focused on basketball.
"We’re expecting a bigger crowd on Sunday," Irving said. "Happy it was a great start to seeing what the environment’s going to be like, and just looking forward to the challenge."
Kevin Durant, who did his part with 39 points, noted the Celtics tied the Nets with 16 made three-pointers in addition to yielding Tatum’s 50-point night. He stressed the need to improve on defense as the best way to stem the Celtics’ growing confidence.
"We’ve got to do a better job of contesting," Durant said. "They shot (50.6%) from the field. We can’t allow that. Forty-one from the three? We can’t allow that. And we get outrebounded [46-37]. Just got to be better."
Defending Tatum, who recorded his fourth game this season with at least 50 points, is a tall order for anyone. But the Nets also must focus on controlling Thompson and Marcus Smart, both of whom set a physical standard, play tough defense and are opportunistic on the offensive glass.
"We just talked about being the more assertive, physical team," the Nets’ Joe Harris said. "I thought we did a pretty good job of that in Games 1 and 2. [Friday] night, you probably say Boston was a little more [physical] than us.
"Tatum is an incredible player, but you’ve got to do everything you can just to make it tough on him. Last night, huge game, 50 points. That’s unacceptable from our point of view."
After going down 2-0 to begin the series, it was the Celtics who understood they had to be more physical, and now that they are back in the fight, they have no intention of letting up.
"We’re going up against a juggernaut of a team," Smart said. "The world knows it. So you can’t lay down, you can’t take a step back. You have to press forward and fight back and that’s what we did [in Game 3]. This is a good win for us. We’ve got another one to go."
The battle lines have been drawn for what promises to be a raucous Game 4 clash.