NEW YORK — The fans at the Barclays Center, most of whom were sporting green jerseys and T-shirts, had already serenaded Kyrie Irving with an MVP chant during fourth-quarter free throws. But the loudest cheers for the visiting squad were reserved for a sequence in the final minute when Jaylen Brown zipped an alley-oop lob to Jayson Tatum for an emphatic slam.
Irving overcame frustration with his new protective mask to score a game-high 25 points, while Brown and Tatum paired up for 32 points as the Celtics won their 13th straight game 109-102 over the Nets.
Kyrie Irving gave an assist to the clear mask he played with Tuesday night for helping him find teammates to pass to. “The difference with the black mask is that (teammates are) not getting the ball because I couldn’t see outside of my eyesight,” he said.
The streaking Celtics will host the defending-champion Warriors on Thursday night at TD Garden.
In the aftermath of that late-game alley-oop, any remaining Nets fans were left to watch Brown and Tatum engage in a celebratory body-bump near midcourt. It was a painful reminder of what could have been.
Both Brown and Tatum, along with Irving, were delivered to Boston by direct result of the draft picks the Nets sent the Celtics as part of the 2013 blockbuster that brought Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry to Brooklyn.
This was the first time since 2013 that Boston played a game against Brooklyn that didn’t have implications on a future pick, and Celtics fans had often utilized the hashtag #Netspick while basking in Brooklyn’s recent struggles. On Tuesday, Celtics fans simply enjoyed watching the exploits of the players delivered thanks to the Nets’ woes.
Heck, even Celtics coach Brad Stevens acknowledged before Friday’s game how much of an impact that trade had on Boston’s success, both current and past. Stevens had taken the Boston job in the immediate aftermath of the Nets and Celtics agreeing to the blockbuster swap (that wouldn’t formally be consummated until early in Stevens’ tenure), and he couldn’t have known then how important the return haul would be in aiding Boston’s success.
Kyrie Irving returned to action with a mask but still managed to score 25 points in the win over the Nets.
“I don’t think I realized when I came here how big [the trade] was, because it literally was happening as I was talking to [Celtics president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] about coming here,” Stevens said. “And I was thinking probably more of it from a standpoint of coaching a team and knowing you’re losing Pierce, Garnett and those guys.
“I’ve heard Danny talk about it a lot. That Nets team, as constructed, we all thought would be really good. And they went on, especially that [2013-14] year, went on a tear there for a while where they were really, really good. And it’s a hard deal to be able to project into the future. We’ve been fortunate with regard to being able to get some players here in the draft that we think will help us for a long time. But it’s hard to project.
“Hey, at the end of the day, the unpredictability is the tough part of those guys’ jobs.”
Boston’s winning streak has seen different heroes throughout the run, with different players stepping up, particularly when stars were injured.
While Irving and Al Horford (another ultraefficient shooting night with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds) helped Boston finish off Tuesday’s win, it was Marcus Morris who came up with a string of key fourth-quarter buckets to help Boston separate itself a bit at a time when the team was struggling to score with its stars on the bench.
Morris finished with a season-high 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
“I was just trying to make plays,” Morris said. “The offense was struggling a little bit, Coach did a great job giving me the ball in good positions.”
Asked if he’s starting to get his legs under him, Morris deadpanned, “It’s about time.”
Countered Stevens: “[Morris] never wants to come out. But, no, we need his scoring. If you look at where we are right now as a team, what our biggest needs are, shooting and scoring from another guy is huge, so Marcus, we’re gonna need him. So it was good to really see him make those biggest plays late.”
The Celtics got Irving back Tuesday night, but he seemed irritated with his mask throughout the game. He would sometimes tinker with the straps while bringing the ball up the court and typically removed it completely at stoppages.
When Irving missed a layup while being fouled in the second quarter, he angrily tore the mask off his face in frustration. It didn’t deter him from some clutch late-game hoops to keep the Nets at arm’s length.
Asked how his face felt after the game, Irving said, “It’s broken. That’s that.” As for the mask? He added, “It’s almost like having somewhat foggy blinders on.”
Tatum finished with 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting and sparked Boston’s offense early on. Brown had a few highlight-reel moments, including an around-the-world dunk on an uncontested fast break.
Now Irving and the Celtics turn their attention to the Warriors.
“It’s definitely an incredible streak we are on, and now comes the whole media frenzy of ‘Will the streak end?’ and ‘What’s going to happen on Thursday when the Golden State Warriors come to Boston?’ so I’m looking forward to all that hoopla,” Irving said.
“For us, it’s another game for us to continuously get better and a test for us to really stay together and show our resilience and show what we’re really made of,” he said. “That’s something a competitor wants to be a part of. I know we have some true competitors on this team, and obviously, they’re the reigning champs. For us, we’re trying to accomplish something bigger than ourselves and win a championship. It’s a long road ahead, but getting regular-season games like this is always fun.”