BOSTON — Kyrie Irving tried to make TD Garden his own, but it belongs to Jayson Tatum.
Tatum's spinning layup around Irving with no time left on the clock gave the Boston Celtics a 115-114 victory against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. All it took was the first buzzer beater in franchise history to erase Irving's sublime performance in the face of a hostile Boston crowd.
Irving, who vowed to re-sign with the Celtics before bolting for the Nets in 2019 free agency, scored 39 points on 20 shots, adding six assists, five rebounds and four steals over 42 minutes. His back-to-back 3-pointers to start the fourth quarter sparked a 15-2 run that handed Brooklyn its first lead of the second half, 100-98. His sixth 3-pointer of the night gave the Nets a 114-111 advantage with 45.9 seconds remaining.
He might have silenced the home crowd, if not for Tatum and repeatedly giving them the middle finger.
Amid "Kyrie sucks" chants, Irving flashed double birds before his free throws cut Boston's lead to 84-73 midway through the third quarter. He gave fans a one-finger salute minutes later, when he found the net on a contested corner jumper that slashed the deficit to 91-84. And he wrapped two more middle fingers behind his head before his give-and-go layup gave the Nets a 102-98 lead with 7:22 left in the final frame.
"The same energy they have for me, I'm going to have for them," Irving said following the game. "And it's not every fan. I don't want to attack every Boston fan, but when people start yelling "p****" and "b****" and "f*** you" and all of this, there's only so much you can take as a competitor. We're the ones expected to be docile and be humble and take a humble approach. No. F*** that. It's the playoffs. This is what it is."
Meanwhile, Tatum embraced the Boston crowd. He was calling for maximum volume in the arena as Nic Claxton attempted two free throws in the final minutes of a tie game, and it worked. Claxton missed both.
"It's the playoffs. We're playing in TD Garden. It doesn't get any better than being in this position, and our crowd was great tonight," Boston's Al Horford said. "They were unbelievable. I'm enjoying the moment."
Irving had the last laugh in his hand but ran into Marcus Smart and a Horford double team. After Jaylen Brown's layup brought the Celtics within one with 38.9 seconds remaining, Irving tried one last time to be the hero Brooklyn needed, but Boston's top-rated defense never gave him an opening. He could only find Kevin Durant for a contested off-balance 3-point attempt that missed the mark as the shot clock expired.
"He didn't want to get off the ball," Celtics coach Ime Udoka said of Irving.
The game's final possession encapsulated everything that has given the Celtics the advantage over the Nets all season. Nobody panicked for Boston. Horford grabbed the rebound and found Derrick White on the outlet. White kicked it up to Brown on the right wing, and when his window to the basket closed, he fired a cross-court pass to Smart with 3.6 seconds on the clock. When everyone figured Smart for the shot, he faked into a drive and found a cutting Tatum, who spun into the winner against no rim protection.
It was beautiful offensive basketball from Boston, and Brooklyn had no answer but defensiveness.
Prior to their playoff meeting, Irving told reporters, "I just hope we can move past my Boston era and just reflect on some of the highlights I left at TD Garden that they can replay." Only, neither side was interested in reconciling. Irving entered the game exchanging expletives with a fan in the tunnel and exited it leaving no doubt how he felt about the sold-out crowd. On one hand, he was clearly impacted by the attention, even as he insisted "there's no hostility, it's basketball," and on the other hand, he performed at his peak.
"Embrace it," he said. "Its the dark side. Embrace it."
When last we saw Irving in a Boston playoff atmosphere, he stomped on the Celtics' leprechaun logo at midcourt to end Game 4 their 2021 first-round series. A fan threw a water bottle at him in response. Brooklyn eliminated Boston a game later, and the young Celtics embraced their former teammate in defeat.
Tatum's Celtics are no longer here for the hugs. They want to do the stomping. Game 2 is on Wednesday in TD Garden. Larry Bird may not be walking through that door, but Irving's birds are, and Boston is here for it.
– – – – – – –