When the game ended, Kyrie Irving enjoyed lots of hugs and high-fives with his former Celtics teammates, but during the game itself, he made it clear there was no way he was going to let the Nets lose to his old team.
Irving scored 40 points and led a late rally to pull out a 121-109 victory over the Celtics on Thursday night at Barclays Center.
The 1,374 fans who attended the game celebrated near the end by chanting "MVP! MVP!" as Irving lined up a pair of foul shots that helped put the game out of reach.
Irving had a 15-for-23 shooting night, including 5-for-8 from three-point range. James Harden added 22 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists and Landry Shamet contributed 18 points on 6-for-9 marksmanship from outside the arc.
The Nets (25-13), who have won 11 of their past 12 games, were 19-for-42 from three-point range (45.2%).
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics (19-18) with 31 points, but fellow All-Star Jaylen Brown was limited to 13 points and 5-for-23 shooting. Kemba Walker managed only 11 points, two after the first quarter.
Irving laughed about the postgame celebration with his former teammates and said it showed that all the talk about him having bad relationships with old teammates is just that — misguided talk.
"It’s my former team," Irving said. "Obviously, I think I’ll let the casual NBA fans talk about what it could mean in terms of a special night. But I’m just waiting for the main stage [in the playoffs], playing in front of millions of people and it actually mattering in terms of win or lose or go home.
"I’m looking forward to that, but games like this in the middle of the season against guys that you know well, that’s always a blessing. I’m always happy for those guys and I want to see them do well. When we’re playing against each other, we’re just going to leave it out there on the floor and that’s just where it stands. We have that respect, but of course, our relationships go way further off the floor.''
the Nets had a two-point lead after three quarters, but they were physical at the defensive end, controlling the boards and making things tough on the Celtics from three-point range.
Harden opened the final quarter by hitting a floater that triggered a 12-4 burst. Jeff Green's corner three-pointer with 8:55 left capped the run and gave the Nets a 100-90 lead.
The Celtics cut their deficit to two on a layup by Tatum at the 4:14 mark, but the Nets responded with a 13-3 finishing kick that included eight straight points by Irving.
As much as Irving downplayed the importance of beating his former team, Shamet thought there was something to it.
"Any time you play an old team, there’s an added sense of whatever," he said. "Whether he says it or not, that’s always there, I think. I know for me it is. It gives you a little extra juice. I wasn’t surprised at all. He does it on a night-to-night basis, but tonight was pretty special."
Irving had 10 points in a 24-11 second-quarter run as the Nets took their biggest lead of the first half at 54-47. But the Celtics moved to within 58-55 at halftime and opened the third quarter with a 9-0 burst for a 64-58 lead, including four points from Tatum.
Irving then scored seven of his 14 third-quarter points in a 17-6 run to regain an 88-82 lead.
The Nets were 10-1 going into the All-Star break, but coach Steve Nash worried before the game about rust after they practiced only briefly on Wednesday.
"We were trending in a positive direction in pretty much all facets," he said of how the Nets ended the first half. "It’s a tricky game tonight for both teams just with one practice yesterday evening and right back to it. That’s a difficult thing to navigate, so I don’t want to overload them with messaging.
"I want to keep it clear and simple and try to allow them an opportunity to play free and simply, share the ball, work together defensively . . . I just want to give them the best chance to come out and try to find that rhythm again."