Celtics close out exhibition season with loss to Brooklyn

Kyrie Irving, back in the Garden as a Net for the first time, walked around the floor before the game burning sage — as opposed to holiday incense — as a purification ritual.
Though this may have had the additional benefit of chasing away any lingering demons from the boos cast out by the Garden crowd last season — nights when he was in absentia — Irving said it’s a ritual he hopes to follow in every arena he visits this season, with permission.
“It just comes from a lot of native tribes. Being able to sage, just cleanse the energy, make sure that we’re all balanced,” said Irving, whose late mother has Sioux heritage. “When we come into this job, we come into this place, it’s not anything that I don’t do at home that I did today. I saged last game, and I plan to sage almost every game if the opposing team will allow me to.”
And he was able to do this in solitude, for of course fans aren’t allowed in Boston venues right now.
The canned crowd noise sounded like it was coming from somewhere removed, like Causeway Street, as the Celtics were introduced to an empty building Friday night in their last exhibition game against Brooklyn.
Irving had trotted onto the floor with the Nets down the other end — his first game in the Garden since becoming a Net. Hip hop was layered over the sound, so the crowd noises seemed to be straining in vain for a fair share.
When the Nets return on Christmas, this time for a real game, maybe they’ll shake things up with a holiday soundtrack, but for the first half of the season, anyway, the trappings will be as artificial as Nana’s fruitcake.
“You can’t replace the presence of fans in TD,” said Semi Ojeleye. “The floor is shaking, the place is buzzing and you can’t create that without fans. I think we will bring our own energy, we’re going to have to. We’re going to give it all we got and we’ll miss the fans regardless.”
They miss the fans, alright, as evidenced by their 113-89 loss to Brooklyn in their second and final exhibition game. They open against Milwaukee on Dec. 23, host the Nets again on Christmas, follow that with two games in three days in Indianapolis, and look like they need another month of training camp.
Asked to assess his team’s opening night readiness, Brad Stevens responded with an open-ended answer.
“We’ll know more on Wednesday,” said the Celtics coach. “Obviously we haven’t played well in the majority of these two games. And certainly our first group has not played well, or just generally the guys that are going to play the share of the minutes, so we’re going to have to make sure we get a lot better and get ready for Wednesday. We’ve got a really good team, Milwaukee, coming in. At the same time, these games are exhibition games for a reason, so we’ll learn from them and move on.”
Payton Pritchard, the first exhibition game’s pyrrhic hero, returned to the pumpkin patch Friday night with a five-point, 2-for-9 performance after the rookie missed his first seven shots.
Jayson Tatum shook off a slow start for 19 points and eight rebounds, but beyond him and Jaylen Brown (16 points, four rebounds, four assists), no other Celtic broke into double figures.
They started off by spotting the Nets a 35-point quarter — Irving quickly took off with six points, two assists, three rebounds and a steal in that stretch — and ultimately the Nets had little trouble, shooting 45.6 percent from downtown, where the Celtics shot a belabored 17.8 percent (8-for-45).
“I think we got everything we wanted in terms of looks. Eight-for-45 from three isn’t acceptable,” said Brown. “We have to make some shots, step in with confidence and knock them down. Then the narrative is different. When you’re on the Celtics team, you can’t be counted out. That’s what this city is all about. We’ll fight.”
But that may have been part of the issue Friday. Though they picked up their defensive intensity in the second half, the Celtics were flat, with low energy.
The Celtics had a similar issue early in their experience in the Orlando bubble, and suffered through their first three seeding games before hitting stride. But even that standard doesn’t compare, according to Stevens.
“We’re not even close to that group that was in the bubble,” said Stevens. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get to that point, we have to play a lot better than we have. Ultimately we have to make sure we’re building the right habits.
“We got out-played. We can talk about techniques and coverages and all that other stuff, but it doesn’t really matter. I thought that they played with great poise and purpose and did a great job, they out-played us in every which-way, and that was one of the ways they out-played us for sure.”
One thing was certain. Irving’s return was far too easy. And though Friday was the first time since opening night of the 2017-18 season in Cleveland that he’s played a game in one of his former arenas, the point guard, sans the crowd, had a pleasant time.
“It’s like another day at the job. Honestly,” he said. “I’m grateful to be able to have relationships with a lot of these guys who are still here, guys who aren’t here still. And, at the end of the day, we went to war together. And I respect all those young men down there. We’re not even young. We’re just young kids growing in a business where we want to do what makes us happy. To see Jayson get better, to see Jaylen get better, to see these guys mature and be in the positions they’re in, I’m nothing but proud of them. To see other guys be happy, that’s all I could want. Coming here is easy, man. Performing here is easy. Performing here is easy. Basketball is the easy part. It’s just the external stuff beforehand that gets noisy, so I try to limit that.”

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