If nothing else, the Nets have shown the ability to come back against the Celtics this season. They wiped out all but three points of a 23-point deficit in the season opener at Boston, and Wednesday night at Barclays Center, they completely erased a 17-point first-quarter deficit midway through the third period.
The problem for the Nets is finishing. After forging that third-quarter tie, they quickly fell behind by 14 again and didn’t have enough left to come all the way back again in a 111-92 loss that was their fifth straight.
Early in the third quarter, a 6-0 Nets surge ending with a Brook Lopez floater in the lane tied the game at 60 with 5:59 left in the quarter, wiping out the 17-point deficit. But the Celtics had a powerful response, ending the quarter on a 19-6 run that included eight points from Thomas for a 79-66 advantage. When Kelly Olynyk hit a three early in the fourth period, the Celts were back in front by 14, and the Nets never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“They hit some big three-point shots that broke the game open,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “We had some good looks at the rim that didn’t go down . . . They made 15 three-pointers. That’s too much in a game like that.”
Sean Kilpatrick came off the bench to lead the Nets (4-10) with 23 points and added three assists. Forward Trevor Booker recorded his fifth double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds, Bojan Bogdanovic added 14 points, Lopez totaled 13, and Joe Harris had 12, but the Nets shot only 39.5 percent.
The Celtics (9-6) were led by guards Isaiah Thomas (23 points, five assists) and Avery Bradley (22 points, seven rebounds), and they got 17 points and eight assists from forward Al Horford and 15 points from Jae Crowder.
In their previous four losses, the Nets allowed an average of 126.0 points per game, worst in the NBA over that stretch. But with two full days to work in the Nets’ home practice facility, Atkinson was hoping for a return to the improved defense the Nets showed in their 4-5 start to the season.
“We focused on our defense, trying to make some improvements without forgetting our offense and the improvements we need to make there,” Atkinson said before the game. “We got to watch some film in our comfort zone. It was good to get home and get back in our player development routine, the whole thing. Hopefully, it will pay dividends tonight or down the road.”
After a first quarter in which the Nets trailed by as much as 17 points before the period ended with the Celtics holding a 30-16 lead, it seemed like “down the road” was the more likely time for improvement. The Celtics controlled points in the paint, 18-6, scored six points on seven Nets turnovers and held the Nets to 27.3 percent shooting.
Early in the second quarter, the Celtics pushed their lead back to 17, but suddenly, the tide turned and it was the Nets forcing turnovers and getting into the paint to score. Bogdanovic, who had 12 points in the second period, scored 10 in a 21-6 run the cut the Nets’ deficit to 45-43, and a three-pointer by Joe Harris as the shot clock expired near the end of the first half maintained that margin as the half ended with the Celts clinging to a 51-49 lead.
The Celtics had seven second-quarter turnovers leading to 13 Nets points, and the Nets shot 56.5 percent for the quarter, including a 5-of-9 effort from three-point range. It felt like a new game beginning the second half, but it was the same old result of late.