Steve Nash was concerned the Nets could by rusty after the All-Star break, and he was right.
But Kyrie Irving was so good against his old team, it didn’t matter.
After putting on a show in a Christmas Day rout in Boston, Irving had an encore performance to open the second half of the season. Amid cheers of “M-V-P,” he led the Nets to a come-from-behind 121-109 win Thursday night before 1,374 at Barclays Center.
Irving poured in a game-high 40 points to led the Nets (25-13) to a third-straight win, and 11th in their last 12, to move percentage points behind first-place Philadelphia in the East. It’s already his fifth 40-point outing as a Net, third most in team history.
“I think it’s continue on the path we were on. We were trending in a positive direction in pretty much all facets,” Nash said before the game. “It’s a tricky game for both teams just with one practice 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. We can adjust as the game goes on, but I don’t want to overload them to start the game with too many thoughts and messages, because it’s a difficult scenario. I just want to give them the best chance to come out and try to find that rhythm again.”
Irving found it for them, shooting 15 of 23 and grabbing eight rebounds. That backed up the 37 he torched the Celtics for in a 123-95 Christmas Day rout following an ugly free-agency exit in June 2019.
James Harden flirted with yet another triple-double (22 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists), while Landry Shamet added 18 on 6 of 9 from deep.
Even with Kevin Durant still out, the Nets improved to 17-3 with at least two of their Big Three playing. They overcame Jayson Tatum’s 31 points, a slow start and deficits in the second and third quarters.
“Yeah, we haven’t had enough [practice],” Nash had warned. “[Wednesday] night, practicing, we scrimmaged a little bit, but it’s tough. You can plan with a performance team, but after a number of days off, you don’t want to overload them [Wednesday] night.
“I’m not entirely confident that I can answer [how sharp we’ll be]. I think there will be some rust, but hopefully it comes off quickly and we can still execute on both ends.”
It came off just in time.
That rust Nash had warned about? It was very real.
The Nets stumbled out of the gate, missing eight of their first 11 shots — all three from behind the arc — and falling behind 18-8 after nine quick points by Celtics guard Kemba Walker in the first 6:19. But he didn’t score again until late in the fourth, as the Nets held him to just 11 and found their footing.
The Celtics lead got to 27-16 after a Payton Pritchard 3-pointer with a minute-and-a-half left in the first quarter.
But with the Nets down 38-33 on Tristan Thompson’s dunk with 7:57 in the half, Brooklyn put together an 18-7 run to take the momentum, flipping a five-point deficit into a six-point cushion.
Irving had 10 points and a steal in the run, and his pull-up 3 put Brooklyn ahead 51-45 with 3:46 left in the half.
Boston’s transition defense let them keep Brooklyn in check and climb back ahead. But trailing 70-65 in the third quarter, the Nets reeled off a 23-12 run that put them ahead for good.
Irving had seven points in the run, while Harden added five with a pair of assists — the second finding Tyler Johnson for a 3-pointer that made it 88-82 with a minute-and-a-half left in the third. A Jeff Green 3 padded it to 100-90 with just under nine minutes to play, and Brooklyn held the Celtics (19-18) at arm’s length.
When the Celtics climbed within 110-106, Irving’s 3 with 3:12 left was the dagger.