In some ways, this wasn’t, or at least shouldn’t have been, at all startling. Thanks, in part, to Irving—who refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and, therefore, until a late-season rule change by Mayor Eric Adams, was ineligible to play in the Nets’ home games—the Nets had relatively few opportunities this season to hone their approach. (The team traded a third star, James Harden, amid reports that he had become frustrated that Irving was playing only part-time.) They were a theoretical super-team, not a fully realized force. And, by many metrics, the Celtics have been the best team in the N.B.A. since January or February, especially on the defensive end, where their rookie head coach, Ime Udoka, has their long-limbed roster whipping around the floor, as fluid as the body of a snake. Their young star, Jayson Tatum, has undergone, it seems, the epiphany—always more conceptual than purely athletic—that accompanies a jump into the N.B.A.’s uppermost echelon. Previously a promising scorer with a penchant for taking a dribble too many into the waiting maw of the defense, or settling for an off-balance seventeen-footer instead of finding the open man, Tatum is now an ace playmaker, all quick decisions and sharp drives to the rim. He takes his wide wingspan swooping to the basket and rarely comes up totally empty. Now he lives at the free-throw line, the residence of all hoops royalty.
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Tatum’s teammates take their cues from him, passing crisply and defending sturdily. His more veteran colleague, the guard Marcus Smart, recently won the Defensive Player of the Year Award and, after years of tetchy playmaking, has reinvented himself, on offense, as a highly capable game-managing point guard. In the best play of the series so far, at the end of Game One, Smart, having collected a sharp pass from his teammate Jaylen Brown, pump-faked two defenders into the air, then delivered a spot-on pass to Tatum, who immediately went into a merengue-like spin around a defender and made a game-ending layup.
On Saturday, the Nets gave out black T-shirts at Barclays, the better to achieve a kind of galvanizing unity in the stands. Kids wore Durant and Irving jerseys, and their parents pulled on the free shirts, but all through the crowd, amid the monochrome, you could see a steady peppering of Celtic green. Some kids behind me—teen-agers, I think, or possibly young adults in their earliest twenties—yelled out generic phrases of encouragement for the home team. They were loud but didn’t sound fierce. The Nets, formerly of New Jersey, still sometimes feel like newcomers to Brooklyn, and one of my constant fascinations has been trying to figure out how, and by what avenues, their fan culture has developed. It seemed from the playoff atmosphere that they are still a team for the young and upwardly mobile. The crowd was fresh-faced and eager but kind of polite—there to take in a show as spectators more than to graft themselves, by force of shouts or groans or imprecatory utterances, onto the personality of the team.