BOSTON — After spending much of this season searching for offense, Nets coach Steve Nash finally made the logical move, inserting LaMarcus Aldridge in the starting lineup at center in place of slumping Blake Griffin. That move combined with one of their most complete defensive performances of the season resulted in a 123-104 victory Wednesday night at TD Garden.
The Nets led by as much as 29 points in the third period before letting their foot off the gas to allow a 23-6 run by the Celtics spanning the end of the third and start of the fourth quarters to cut their deficit to 97-85. The Nets pushed it back to 19 at 107-88 after five straight points from Kevin Durant only to see the Celtics fight back within 13 points with 4:46 left to play, but that was as close as they got.
"It’s a quality road win for sure," Nash said. "That’s a team that’s been playing great basketball. I think our team is on this journey, this path to find an identity and tonight was a step in that direction. We executed. Other than when we took our foot off the gas a little bit it was an outstanding performance. Those first three quarters were excellent. For us, it’s about building and growing and trying to get better."
The Nets (14-5) got 23 points from Patty Mills, 21 from Durant, 20 points and 11 assists from James Harden, 17 points and nine rebounds from Aldridge, 10 rebounds from DeAndre’ Bembry, and a 13-point contribution from rookie Cam Thomas off the bench.
But the real key was a defense that held the Celtics to 37.4% shooting overall and 22.9% from three-point range (11-48). Marcus Smart topped the Celtics (10-9) with 20 points and Jayson Tatum added 15 on 4-for-16 shooting, and Jaylen Brown had 13 on 5-for-15 shooting.
Asked if it was the Nets’ most complete game of the season, Harden agreed. "Yeah definitely," Harden said. "I mean so far. It’s only been 20 games or something. We can continue to build on this. We go back home, we got the Suns who obviously we all know how they’ve been playing, but it’s going to be another great test for us but we just got to continue to get better."
After replacing Griffin with Aldridge in the second half of the Nets’ comeback victory Monday night in Cleveland, Nash said the notion of moving Aldridge from the key bench role he has played into the starting lineup was a possibility against the Celtics. Over his previous eight games, Griffin averaged a mere 3.6 points on 26.1% shooting and went 0-for-22 from three-point range.
At the Wednesday morning shootaround, Nash agreed opposing defenses basically weren’t guarding Griffin on the perimeter to throw more defenders at Durant and Harden. "If we’re going to play against loaded defenses, it’s going to be hard no matter if your name is Kevin Durant or James Harden," Nash said. "It’s just tough to go one-on-two, one-on-three."
Despite a scoreless first period from Aldridge, who missed all four shots he took, the Nets played much better on offense from the start, jumping out to a 62-49 halftime lead.
Playing from ahead for a change, the Nets opening the third quarter with an 18-3 run, including six points from Aldridge, that sent their lead soaring to 28 points at 80-52. Later in the period, it reached a high of 29 points.
Durant said the lineup change to Aldridge had a positive impact. "He’s somebody that can space, knock down his shot and just a big body that can rebound and protect the rim," Durant said. "We’re going to need all our bigs the whole year. I know Blake wasn’t in there, but we need him to stay ready to be the team we want to be."