BOSTON — Sunday’s nationally televised game at TD Garden started inauspiciously for the Nets.
On the opening possession, Boston’s Jayson Tatum threw a perfect alley-oop pass to Robert Williams III for a dunk.
Then former Celtics star Kyrie Irving — who was booed the moment he laced up his sneakers and every time he touched the ball thereafter — threw a behind-the-back pass to no one. It bounced out of bounds.
From there, the two would-be Eastern Conference powerhouses staged a game worthy of a national audience.
The fans’ focus was on Irving, but the game was a scoring duel between Tatum and Kevin Durant.
Tatum won the individual battle with a season-high 54 points to Durant’s 37, and the Celtics won the game, 126-120.
Tatum had 34 points in the second half. Asked the difference in the outcome, Irving said: "Jayson Tatum."
Nets coach Steve Nash, who returned after missing three games following a positive COVID-19 test, had a more nuanced take.
"I think [it was] the fourth quarter," he said. "We didn’t execute down the stretch. We were talking about it with the group: I mean, we looked like a brand-new team that hasn’t played together as a group and they look like a team that knew exactly what they were doing."
In a game that featured 28 lead changes, Seth Curry gave the Nets their final one at 111-110 with a three-pointer with 3:29 left. Tatum scored Boston’s next six points and the Celtics went on to their 14th win in 16 games.
The Nets (32-33), who have lost four straight and 17 of 20, are in a virtual three-way for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The have the same record as Charlotte — but are behind the Hornets because of tiebreakers — and are .00025 ahead of Atlanta (31-32), two games ahead of 11th-place Washington. The Nets will visit Charlotte on Tuesday.
" ‘Concerned’ and ‘worried’ — those words, it’s easy to do that," Durant said. "It’s easy to be concerned, easy to be worried and [ticked] off and mad. Easy to do that. We can point fingers and blame our season on other things, but let’s just go play. We’ve got another game. We’ve got 17 more and let’s see what happens at the end. We just take it a day at a time. A day at a time and I’m confident in this group."
Even with the serious injuries he has suffered during his career, Durant became the 23rd player in NBA history (and seventh fastest) to hit the 25,000-point mark.
"It’s pretty cool," said Durant, who had eight assists. "I should be at 30 right now, to be honest with you."
Irving finished with 19 points and six assists. Bruce Brown added 16 points and LaMarcus Aldridge had 14 for the Nets.
Jaylen Brown scored 21 points as all five Boston starters scored in double figures.
It was the second game back for Durant after a knee injury and the fifth time Durant and Irving have played together this season. They will get two more opportunities on this road trip in Charlotte and on Thursday in Philadelphia. The Nets will return home to face the Knicks on Sunday; the unvaccinated Irving still is ineligible to play home games under New York City’s current COVID-19 rules.
Of getting booed in Boston — mostly because he promised to re-sign with the Celtics and then didn’t — Irving said: "I know it’s going to be like that for the rest of my career coming in here . . . But the reality is that I’m just grateful for my time here in Boston."
The Nets lost Cam Thomas to a back contusion in the second quarter. Nash said he did not know the severity of the injury.
Kevin Durant on Sunday became the 23rd player in NBA history to score 25,000 career points. Durant reached the milestone in the seventh-fewest games (922) in NBA history. The fastest to 25,000:
1. Wilt Chamberlain 691
2. Michael Jordan 782
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 889
4. LeBron James 915
5. Oscar Robertson 917
6. Jerry West 920
7. Kevin Durant 922