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Jayson Tatum leads Celtics over Nets in Kyrie Irving’s return to Boston

As badly as they wanted Kyrie Irving, the Celtics refused to trade Jayson Tatum – a rookie who hadn’t yet played in the NBA for him – in 2017.

This was why.

Four years after Boston dealt other assets for Irving and two years after Irving left for the Nets, Tatum scored 50 points to lead the Celtics to a 125-119 Game 3 victory over Brooklyn on Friday. Boston trimmed its deficit in the first-round series to 2-1 and, perhaps more importantly, bested Irving in his highly anticipated return with fans present.

Tatum was the brightest star on a court where James Harden (41 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds) and Kevin Durant (39 points, nine rebounds, four steals and a block) shined.

But Irving – booed every time he touched the ball – didn’t play up to his usual standards as Brooklyn’s third star. He scored 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting, his misses cheered especially loudly. Celtics fans even chanted “F*** you, Kyrie” while one of his fouls was reviewed for a flagrant.

A near-capacity crowd – nearly quadruple tonight’s attendance – will greet Irving in Game 4 Sunday. Teams that lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series on the road then won Game 3 at home have won Game 4 51% of the time. Boston has a tossup chance to make this series closer to a tossup.

For now, Celtics fans will savor this win. Beating Irving was important to them.

Irving became a villain in Boston by pledging to re-sign, brooding through the 2018-19 season, selfdestructing in the playoffs then leaving for Brooklyn.

Irving’s comments about racism in Boston reignited a longstanding issue and sparked a new wave of discussion in the last few days. No incidents at the game were captured on television.

The focus shifted from Irving to Tatum throughout the game. At 23, Tatum became the third-youngest player to score 50 in a playoff game (behind Rick Barry and Michael Jordan). Tatum also dished seven assists – a key step in his continued development.

The Celtics fell behind by 15 fewer than four minutes into the game, took the lead by the end of the first quarter then led nearly the entire rest of the game.

Marcus Smart (23 points on 8-of-11 shooting and six assists) and Tristan Thompson (19 points and 13 rebounds, nine offensive) did plenty of dirty work.

It seemed the Celtics – who’ve underwhelmed nearly all season and are missing star Jaylen Brown – might have been fading to the finish.

But there’s clearly still some life in this team.