Nets can’t give Celtics any more reason to believe

When it comes to hostile crowds, size matters. Kyrie Irving caught a major break Friday night when pandemic restrictions in Boston kept his on-site antagonists to a number south of 5,000. It was...

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When it comes to hostile crowds, size matters. Kyrie Irving caught a major break Friday night when pandemic restrictions in Boston kept his on-site antagonists to a number south of 5,000.

It was the last break he, or any Brooklynite, got on in a 125-119 Game 3 loss, when the last thing in the world NBA fans expected to happen in this series actually did happen:

The Celtics put a little fear in the Nets, who took a 19-4 lead that felt like a first-round knockout punch. The home team was supposed to be dead on arrival, down 2-0 in a series defined by its lifeless approach. The Celtics had been an embarrassment to the fabled franchise brand over the first two games, and Irving’s Nets were favored to sweep them the way Jason Kidd’s Nets swept them in 2003.

But now the Nets have given Boston a reason to believe, which came in the form of Jayson Tatum’s staggering 50-point performance. Does that mean the Celtics will go ahead now and win this series?

No, it most certainly does not.

It does mean the Nets had better win Sunday night, or risk the unthinkable — giving the Celtics all the momentum rolling into what would be a best-of-three that would put Brooklyn under immense, omigod-we-can’t-possibly-blow-this pressure.

Kyrie Irving reacts as Marcus Smart celebrates a potential four-point play.

As far as the night’s co-main event goes, Irving versus his former fan base, hey, it wasn’t expected to be a church social. Recent fan behavior in the playoffs had sunk to deplorable depths, with a 76ers fan dumping popcorn on Russell Westbrook, a Knicks fan spitting on Trae Young, and a few Jazz fans reportedly directing racist remarks at Ja Morant’s family. In advance of Nets-Celtics Game 3, framed by Irving’s stated hope that he not be subjected to “belligerence or racism … subtle racism …” his father, Drederick, told The Post he wanted his son to be treated better than he was the first time the Nets played at Boston in 2019, after Irving had signed his $141-million deal. The point guard was injured and not even on the trip, and yet he was still welcomed by posters carrying his image and the label “coward.”

“This time I just hope they embrace Kyrie and be mature about it,” Drederick Irving said. Drederick played at Boston University in the 1980s and said he experienced racism in the city, though he declined to offer specifics. He did concede that Boston fans had cause to be upset with his son after Kyrie reneged on his promise to re-sign with the Celtics.

“They have a right to feel that way,” Drederick said. “Kyrie said it, and I’m sure he feels bad about it. … But at the end of the day he’s a human being, and he just wants to be treated that way.”

Before the game, when Irving appeared with 7:45 of warmup time left on the clock, he was hit with a thunderous round of boos. He started dribbling from one sideline to the other near midcourt, back and forth while keeping the ball on a string as the fans kept it up. At one point, he gestured to the crowd to bring some more noise. When Irving was the fourth Net introduced by the public address announcer, the crowd obliged him.

Of course, Irving was booed every time he touched the ball. On his first touch, just 16 seconds into the game, he fired up a jumper before the fans could even clear their throats. It missed. The profane chants to come were best described as unoriginal. With Harden bringing the ball up the floor, the opportunities for Boston to make Irving feel their sense of abandonment were not plentiful.

He seemed impacted regardless. Irving finished the first quarter with no points (three field-goal attempts) and two assists in 12 minutes, while his backcourt partner, Harden, scored 13. Irving didn’t hit his first basket — a 13-foot pull-up — until more than 17 minutes had been played. It was his only score of the first half; his two Big 3 partners had 17 each.

Less than a minute after Irving gave the Nets the lead in the middle of the third quarter, he fouled Marcus Smart on a made 3-pointer on the front end of a four-point play. “F–k you, Kyrie,” the fans chanted before Smart’s free throw. Irving came on a bit in the fourth, finishing with 16 points, but it was too little, too late.

Irving’s coach, Steve Nash, had reminded everyone the other day that athletes and coaches actually enjoy competing in hostile road environments.

“We want the vitriol,” Nash said, “as long as it’s not over the line.”

As it turned out, the Nets got the vitriol they wanted and did nothing with it. Nothing except hand the Celtics a reason to believe.

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Ian O'Connor

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