BOSTON – The TD Garden crowd was primed for a hateful homecoming celebration for departed free agent Kyrie Irving, and the fans would not be denied. Even though Irving was not in the building while sitting out his seventh straight game with a right shoulder injury, they chanted “Kyrie sucks!” just after the Nets were introduced, and it reverberated again throughout the opening half.
The irony is that, after getting off to a slow 4-7 start with Irving scoring 28.5 points per game, the Nets (9-8) came in riding a 5-1 streak without him. But all those wins came against losing teams, and the 12-4 Celtics figured to provide a more realistic measuring stick in a home-and-home set that continues Friday at Barclays Center.
“This is another level,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said before the game. “This is another test against an elite team tonight and Friday. Great test to see if we can, with the same group, compete against the best in the league.”
Boston coach Brad Stevens said the Nets look much the same as they did last season, and he paid tribute to backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, three-point specialist Joe Harris and a tough Nets defense as keys to the turnaround. Atkinson agreed, especially regarding how Dinwiddie has taken control of the team much as he did in similar situations the previous two seasons.
“He did the same thing last year,” Atkinson said of Dinwiddie. “Talented player who keeps improving. I think he thrives in these situations where responsibility is thrust upon him. He steps up.
“I’ll say one thing about Spencer that isn’t talked about is that he plays both ends. The other night (in Cleveland, Marcus) Morris was hurting us. With four minutes to go, Spencer goes, ‘I got him.’ That was the challenge for him, to be a guy that plays both ends. He’s really doing it.”
Dinwiddie said the commitment the Nets have made at the defensive end has been critical to their turnaround, and he added that it should remain in place even when Irving finally returns to the lineup no matter who is on the floor.
“This is not something that’s like this group or that group or he’s in or he’s not in,” Dinwiddie said. “If we as a unit can hold a team to around 100 points, then, we as a team have a chance at winning that game. When we have Kyrie, the chances are a lot higher.”
When it was suggested that the Nets’ mindset changes with Irving because he is so productive offensively, Dinwiddie said that must change. “That’s what I’m saying,” Dinwiddie said. “We can’t take his talent and safety net for granted. If we play this style of defense and add in one of the most talented offensive players in history, you’ve got a really good chance to win a lot of games.”
Atkinson insisted the Nets can continue to play good defense when Irving returns. “I’ve been very pleased with Kyrie’s defense,” Atkinson said. “He avoids screens. He’s an acrobat in terms of getting over pick-and-rolls. He’s a better defender than we all give him credit for.”