Clinging to a one-point halftime lead, and needing a win to avoid falling into a tie for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot with five games to go, the Nets left their locker room well aware that this was a game they simply couldn’t let get away.
“We weren’t playing the best,” D’Angelo Russell said. “We were giving them a lot of what they were getting. We knew we had to buckle down and tighten up.
“We knew what we needed to do.”
It was a sentiment Russell clearly took to heart, as he scored 20 of his 29 points in the third quarter to lead the Nets to a desperately needed 110-94 victory over the Celtics Saturday night — one that allowed Brooklyn to keep pace on a night when all four teams fighting for the final three playoff spots in the East came away with wins.
“We know all these games coming up are playoff games,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “It’s just how we have to look at it. We’re in it. We can’t shy away from it.
“They’re all playoff games, but it was important to get this one.”
Atkinson said that before knowing the results of the other games around the East — including the sixth-place Detroit Pistons beating the Portland Trail Blazers, the eighth-place Miami Heat beating the New York Knicks and the ninth-place Orlando Magic beating the Indiana Pacers.
As a result, the standings at the start of Saturday looked the same as they did at the end of it: Boston and Indiana in a tie for fourth place, followed by Detroit, Brooklyn, Miami and Orlando — with 1.5 games separating the teams in sixth through ninth.
The tightly bunched standings only underscore the importance of any win for each of the teams fighting to reach the playoffs. But it was especially important for the Nets to claim a victory as they fight through a brutally tough closing stretch to make the playoffs.
Before Saturday night’s game, Atkinson tried to downplay expectations for his team getting a win before the Nets took on their latest playoff-bound opponent.
“I think that’s the word: excited,” Atkinson said. “There’s no fear, there’s no trepidation. Look at the schedule. I do think, quite honestly, and I said this before the road trip, we probably are not favored in any of the games, but it’s almost like we have to pull some NCAA upsets.
“We have to beat some teams we’re not supposed to beat. That’s just plain and simple.”
On one hand, Atkinson is right — the Nets are in the midst of a brutal closing schedule that has them playing 12 of their final 14 games (including the final eight in a row) against teams currently in the playoffs, and all but one of them against teams with better records than Brooklyn.
In short: This was a game the Nets simply had to win.
And, thanks to Russell, they did. His other three quarters were nothing to write home about, as he was a combined 4-for-12 shooting, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range, and had four turnovers. But he more than made up for it with his outburst in the third, in which he scored 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 4-for-7 from 3-point range, in just 7 minutes and 44 seconds of game time.
“There’s two halves in every game,” Russell said. “The first half was a little suspect — costly turnovers, questionable shot selection — so I just knew I had to tighten up.”
Once he did, the rest of the Nets followed, pushing the lead to double digits against a tired and undermanned Celtics team. And, in contrast to the many close games the Nets have found themselves in throughout this season, Brooklyn managed to keep a sizable lead throughout the fourth quarter to emerge from this one with a relatively comfortable — and massively important — win.
Boston, on the other hand, caught a break when Indiana — which lost in Boston the night before on Irving’s game-winning layup with 0.5 seconds remaining — lost at home to Orlando, which meant the Celtics remained in fourth place in the East. The Pacers and Celtics will square off again Friday night in Indianapolis in a game that will likely determine who holds home court in the inevitable first-round series between them that will begin two weeks from now.
Entering this season, the Celtics were supposed to be fighting for home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs with two weeks to go in the regular season — not battling simply to have it in the first round of the playoffs. However, power forward Marcus Morris said that Boston will be ready when the postseason rolls around — and that, at that point, everything that happened before won’t matter.
“We’ve been having criticism all year,” Morris said. “It can’t be no worse than what it is now. So we just tell ourselves, keep going, man.
“Everybody is going to doubt us because of the year we had, but when the playoffs hit it’s basically a new season, so we still have a chance to turn this thing around. Probably 10 years from now they’ll do a 30 for 30 on this team.”