Adam Hunger/Associated Press
Even after a break, the Brooklyn Nets are still rolling.
They defeated the Boston Celtics 120-109 Thursday and have won 11 of their last 12 games, improving to 25-13. Brooklyn also snapped a four-game winning streak for Boston, which drops to 19-18.
Kyrie Irving dropped 40 points for the Nets, while Boston was paced by 31 points from Jayson Tatum.
- Kyrie Irving, Nets: 40 PTS, 8 REB
- Jayson Tatum, Celtics: 31 PTS
- Marcus Smart, Celtics: 19 PTS
- James Harden, Nets: 22 PTS, 10 REB
The Return of Marcus Smart
The Celtics’ strong start to the season took a nosedive when guard Marcus Smart was sidelined with a calf strain. He missed 18 games dating back to Feb. 2, and the Celtics were 9-9 in that time, though they struggled to find their stride until they won four games to close out the first half.
Smart’s return was crucial against the Nets, even though they were only set to have two of their stars take the court as Kevin Durant remained out with a hamstring injury. Smart’s defense was clutch the last time he was on the same court as James Harden.
Against the Rockets in February 2020, the Celtics fell 111-110, but Harden was limited to 7-of-24 shooting from the field and hit just four of 17 attempts from deep, according to Land of Basketball.
But he was also integral to the Celtics’ success this season. Before he was injured, Boston ranked 11th in defensive rating, and it dropped to 23rd dating back to Jan. 30, Smart’s last outing.
Head coach Brad Stevens said pregame that Smart would be limited to 20-22 minutes in his return.
He played 10 of those minutes in the first half, scoring eight points as the Nets crept to a three-point lead.
Boston opened the third quarter on a 9-0 run and Smart emerged in his third go on the court to help the Celtics chase Brooklyn, doubling his point total from the first half in the frame.
He ended the night with 19 points on four-of-six shooting from the field, going eight-of-nine from the line.
Smart was the leading scorer off of the bench and the second-leading scorer on the team, coupled with an impressive 31 points from Tatum that helped Boston stay in the game and nearly complete a comeback in the final minutes—with a two-point game in the final four minutes—before Irving’s 20th-career 40-point game broke it open in the end.
Celtics Can’t Stop Kyrie Irving
The Celtics haven’t faced the fully loaded Nets this season, since they played Brooklyn on Christmas Day, before Harden joined the team. They didn’t get the chance to experience the Big Three on Thursday either, since Durant remained out.
But Brooklyn has played well Durant’s absence, going 10-1 in its last 11 games without him. Kyrie Irving and Harden have more than managed to fill the void, with Harden scoring at least 20 points in each game, while Irving hasn’t put up fewer than 16, though he missed two games during that span.
Against his former team on Thursday, Irving starred in helping the Nets to a 58-55 halftime lead after they trailed by as many as 11 points in the first quarter. He grabbed 18 points on seven-of-11 shooting from the field in the first half, while Harden was slowed behind him with just 11 points.
While those two took some time to get going, Landry Shamet tallied 12 points in 15 first-half minutes off of the bench.
As strong as Irving was in the opening half, he was even more of a presence after the break.
Defensively, Robert Williams III was strong for Boston in his 17 minutes off of the bench, with six blocks, four assists and four rebounds, but his limited time wasn’t enough for the Celtics to stop Brooklyn.
Irving ended the night with 40 points on 15-of-23 shooting, almost singlehandedly handing Brooklyn the win.
The Celtics will travel to take on the struggling Houston Rockets on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
Brooklyn will host the Detroit Pistons at 7 p.m. on Saturday.