With just a dozen regular-season games remaining, the Nets suddenly find themselves in first place in the Eastern Conference by a half-game over the 76ers. That came courtesy of one of their finer defensive performances of the season in a 109-104 victory over the Celtics on Friday night at Barclays Center.
The Nets led by as many as 17 points early in the fourth quarter on a basket by Mike James, who signed a 10-day contract earlier in the day, becoming the franchise-record 27th player to suit up for the shorthanded Nets this season. He hadn’t practiced with them yet but played 21 minutes, scoring eight points.
The Celtics threw a scare into the Nets down the stretch, running off 11 straight points to cut their deficit to 98-95 on Jayson Tatum’s three-pointer with 3:32 left. Payton Pritchard’s three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left cut the Nets’ lead to 107-104.
Asked how a game like this one might prepare the Nets for the playoffs, coach Steve Nash said, "I think it’s good to go through a game situation whether you’re trying to get the ball in and you get fouled or you’re trying to take away a three-point shot at the end of the game. So I think we obviously gave up the Pritchard three, but we got the ball in and executed on all our ‘get-ins’ and made free throws.
"There was some sloppiness that let them back in the game. But overall, a win is a win, and this is a group that is a little bit tired and undermanned, so I’m proud of it."
The Nets (40-20) got a balanced scoring effort with five players in double figures, topped by Joe Harris with 20 points, Jeff Green with 19 and Bruce Brown with 15. Kyrie Irving shot just 4-for-19 against his former team but totaled 15 points, nine rebounds, 11 assists and four steals.
The Nets held the Celtics to 40.4% shooting from the field (38-for-94), forced 19 turnovers leading to 20 Nets points and had an unbelievable 32-0 margin in fast-break points.
Tatum led the Celtics with 39 points, Pritchard had 22 and Marcus Smart scored 19.
Irving’s feisty play on the defensive end helped force all the Celtics turnovers that fueled the Nets’ big advantage in fast-break points. "Ky had some steals, assists," Nash said. "It was not his typical scoring night, but it’s few and far between when he doesn’t score the ball at a prolific rate.
"But he definitely disrupted the basketball game defensively, and overall, he draws a lot of attention. I thought he was great in a lot of different ways than we’re accustomed to and I thought his teammates really picked him up as well."
The Nets again were without Kevin Durant and James Harden and were forced to use James because they were shorthanded in the backcourt. The Celtics also were missing key players in Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Robert Williams III.
Late in the third quarter, the Nets took control with a lightning-quick 10-0 burst that included eight points from Harris, ending with a pair of threes that gave them their biggest lead to that point at 86-70.
"Some games are going to come down to the wire when they’re either doubling me or we don’t have any offense going or one of their guys is having a big night," Irving said. "We’ve just got to find a way to combat it, and I think we did a great job of just figuring that out on those fast-break points and getting timely defensive stops down the stretch."