Kyrie Irving #11 of the Nets drives to the basket...

Kyrie Irving #11 of the Nets drives to the basket against Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics in the second half during Game 1 of the first round of the NBA playoffs at Barclays Center on Saturday, May 22, 2021. Credit: Steven Ryan

After a slow start, the Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden lived up to their billing by combining for 82 points, but the surprise of their 104-93 victory over the Celtics in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series Saturday night at Barclays Center was a shockingly rugged defense that yielded just 40 second-half points.

Prior to the playoffs the Nets said they weren’t worried about their offense, but they emphasized the importance of stepping up their physicality on the defensive end. After a poor offensive effort in the first half, they found their groove in the second half, but the most important thing was a defensive effort that limited the Celtics to poor 13-of-40 second-half shooting, including just seven points by Celtics star Jayson Tatum.

"The guys were great," Nets coach Steve Nash said of his defense. "We didn’t have a great outing offensively but our defense was great. They were locked in, they were physical and worked together . . . [The Celtics] had 32 in the second quarter but 21, 20, 20 in the other three quarters. I think we recognized we could stay close by defending."

The Nets saw a nine-point third-quarter lead shrink to three midway through the fourth period, but they responded with a 17-3 spurt that included 11 points by Irving for a 99-82 lead that held up the rest of the way.

"I think we needed a little separation just to settle in for the rest of the game," Irving said of that key stretch. "Fourth quarter, we’ve had a tendency to take our foot off the gas pedal, of stopping attacking the rim or settling for jump shots or just not swinging the ball around and making easy plays for one another."

Durant led the Nets with 32 points and added 12 rebounds, Irving totaled 29 points and eight assists against his former team, and Harden finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Tatum led the Celtics with 22 points but shot only 6-of-20 from the field, Marcus Smart added 17, Kemba Walker totaled 15 and Robert Williams III was a defensive force with nine blocked shots and nine rebounds to go with 11 points.

The Nets came into the game as healthy as they have been all season and were coming off a much-needed week of rest and valuable practice time, especially to help the Big 3 prepare for only their ninth appearance together. But when the game began, nothing was in sync for the Nets on the offensive end.

They managed a mere 16 first-quarter points, missed all nine of their three-point attempts and Durant made just two of his first 10 shots. Early in the second period, the Celtics built a 12-point lead, but the Nets cut that margin to 53-47 at halftime even though they were 1-of-13 from three at that point compared a 9-of-17 three-point effort by the Celtics that really was the difference to that point.

The Nets opened the third period on an 18-4 run that included nine points from Durant and four three-pointers from the Big 3, two by Harden, as they assumed a 65-57 lead they never relinquished.

"I think in that second quarter when we got down 12, we settled in a little bit," Durant said. "I know that sounds weird, but we came out of that timeout a little bit more settled and were able to cut the [halftime] lead to six. We looked at the scoresheet and they made way more threes than us, and we knew that our offense would start to come around.

"We just wanted to keep our physicality up on the defensive side. We got a couple stops to start the third and were able to cruise.''

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