Surging Nets crush Celtics for fourth straight victory

BOSTON — The Nets played arguably their best game of the season.

And Boston was on the wrong end of it.

The Nets crushed the Celtics 123-104 before 19,156 at TD Garden, a sellout crowd that got testy in the third quarter but deflated midway through the fourth, streaming for the exits.

“I’d hope our guys would welcome that [atmosphere],” coach Steve Nash said. “That’s what makes it fun is to go play on the road in a great atmosphere. That’s what gets you excited and it’s a pleasure to be able to play in that type of environment. So a [Wednesday] night in Boston is a great NBA atmosphere.”

East-leading Brooklyn (14-5) won its fourth straight, and 12th in its last 14.

For the first time since last season’s playoffs — when they drilled these same Celtics in the first round, before seeing injuries and the eventual-champion Bucks stop them in the second — Brooklyn actually looked like a title team.

Kevin Durant, who scored 21 points, goes up for a dunk during the Nets' 123-104 win over the Celtics.
Kevin Durant, who scored 21 points, goes up for a dunk during the Nets’ 123-104 win over the Celtics.
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Patty Mills had a team-high 23 points, while Kevin Durant added 21 and James Harden 20 with 11 assists and seven boards.

The Nets have scored more and shot better this season; but that was against Orlando and Detroit. To do this to Boston — in Boston — is a blowout of a different color, arguably their finest performance yet.

And who was to argue? Certainly not the Celtics.

James Harden, who scored 20 points, shoots a 3-pointer during the Nets' win.
James Harden, who scored 20 points, shoots a 3-pointer during the Nets’ win.
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Not after the Nets held them to 36.7 percent shooting, and 11 of 48 from deep.

Not after Brooklyn smothered both Jayson Tatum (4 of 16) and Jaylen Brown (5 of 15). Not after the Nets actually looked like a contender on both ends of the court.

Up to this point, the Nets had compensated for the ongoing absence of All-Star Kyrie Irving by grinding out defensive victories. Their offense got even more hamstrung by the ankle injury to Joe Harris and Blake Griffin’s shooting struggles.

No matter. Nash pushed the right buttons, giving rookie Cam Thomas more minutes and benching Griffin for LaMarcus Aldridge. The moves came up golden.

Aldridge had 17 points and nine rebounds. But more important, his midrange game unlocked the offense, giving the Nets spacing and helping them shred the usually stout Celtics defense for 51.2 percent shooting.

“That’s part of it for sure. Our spacing has struggled at times and also has hurt our pace a little bit. So we try to find different combinations that work,” Nash said.

“If we’re going to play against loaded defenses, it’s going to be hard no matter if your name is Kevin Durant or James Harden. It’s just tough to go one-on-two, one-on-three. We’ve got to play quick, move the defense, move the help and attack. That’s something we’re still trying to work towards and get there.”

They got there for a night.

After taking a 29-22 lead through the first period, Brooklyn went on an 11-3 run to start the second. Harden’s 3-pointer capped it and gave the Nets a 40-25 edge.

Brooklyn mounted another charge to begin the third, this time an extended 18-3 run. This time it was Harden who found sixth-man Mills — starting in place of Harris — for a 3-pointer, and an 80-52 lead.

The cushion got padded to 29, at 90-60 on Harden’s step-back 3 and then at 91-62 on Aldridge’s free throw with 3:50 left in the third.

That proved more than enough. The Nets eventually took their foot off the gas, and Boston made the inevitable run, cutting the lead to a dozen.

The Celtics got within 97-85 on Tatum’s running dunk with 9:23 to play, but no closer.

“[Aldridge] has been great,” said Celtic coach Ime Udoka, a Nets assistant last season. “He brings a different dynamic to their team. He’s a veteran that they trust. I know Kevin and James, they were recruiting him to get him there and bring him back; and he’s been doing a great job. The impact is night and day when he scores and plays that well … and I see his role increasing going forward.”