BOSTON — As if anybody with any measure of rooting interest in the Celtics needed a reminder that the Brooklyn Nets are way, way, way back in the rear-view mirror, we take you to Sunday afternoon at TD Garden, Game 1 Eastern Conference semifinals, about 1:12 remaining in the first half. That’s when Marcus Smart appeared to injure his right shoulder as the Milwaukee Bucks’ Jevon Carter reached in to knock away the ball, causing the Celtics guard to writhe in pain as he headed straight to the tunnel, leaving the sellout crowd to exhale a collective “Uh oh.”
The good news?
“It looked like a stinger,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said after the game. “He kind of said that walking by and we knew he’d be back. I just had to get checked out.”
The bad news, of course, is that Udoka spoke these words in the aftermath of Boston’s 101-89 loss to the defending NBA champs. While it’s true that Smart did return in the second half — he was also battling a quad injury — his presence did not liberate the Celtics from their offensive doldrums. The C’s remained close enough to make a run and turn things around, except that the run never happened.
“They played harder than us,” deadpanned Al Horford. “They were better.”
Now that’s not exactly a news bulletin. If you watched, you saw. Along with suffering a home loss — in Game 1, no less — it was easily the biggest buzzkill the Celtics have delivered to their fan base since they began their magic-carpet ride of a stretch to close out the regular season. The C’s went from 23-24 on Jan. 21 to finishing the regular season at 51-31, and then they swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs.
It wasn’t as if the Celtics rolled the Nets, because they did not. But the series delivered a cathartic bonus to Celtics fans in that a victory over the Nets was a victory over Kyrie Irvingmaking this a settling of all family business after Irving’s ungracious exit from the Boston stage three years ago.
And to further illustrate what the Celtics mean to Boston right now, pull the lens back a little and this is what else has been going on: The Red Sox devoted the entire month of April to finding new methods of not being able to get out of their own way, the Patriots have just completed a draft that has concerned followers believing Bill Belichick was just picking names out of a hat, and the Bruins, on the heels of a so-so regular season, have yet to play their first playoff game . (Game 1 of their opening-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes is Monday night.)
So, yes, the Celtics currently own Boston. That’s how big the victory over the Nets was. And while nobody expected them to dispatch with the bucks the way they did the Nets — hello there, Giannis Antetokounmpo — what they didn’t count on was a Game 1 bow-wow.
At the time Smart was injured, the Celtics were trailing by eight points, 54-46. For those who watched the game, allow me to pose this question: Doesn’t it seem like the Celtics trailed by eight points the entire game? Even when they were close to being in the game in the second half, they were not. Not really.
The Celtics did hold a 22-14 lead early in the game, but that they were facing a tough, physical team was apparent even as they were assembling that lead. The numbers that’ll pop right out of the box score are that Antetokounmpo had a nifty 24-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist day, but the number that should scare Celtics fans is that Boston managed just the measly 89 points.
“Not our best night,” said Udoka. “I thought we guarded well enough, holding them to 101. But to have 89 points and a lack of penetration and paint points is obviously alarming so we have to figure that out.”
Yes, Smart did return in the second half, and as Horford said, “That’s Marcus. That’s how Marcus plays. That’s something you almost expect from him… he did take a beating today. I don’t know how he does it but he does find a way. He gets back in there. I told him (after the game), get your rest, get ready, we have another one on Tuesday.”
In his return in the second half, Smart missed on his first three shots — a lay-up and two three-point attempts from 27 feet. It was nice to see him back out there, but this was not a day for Celtics heroes.
In January, nobody expected the Celtics to be the team in Boston. And what happens? As soon as they get there they get pushed off their parquet.
But Horford is right: They have another one on Tuesday. It’s just that if they want to get back into this series they’ll need to do more than get their rest.
(Photo of Grant Williams, Jayson Tatum and Derrick White: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)