There won’t be many occasions when the Celtics will play before a national audience this season. They lack the star power that drives TV ratings and the overall intrigue that pulls audiences in. That’s just the business.
But Friday night was an exception. ESPN cameras broadcast across the land the Celtics’ game against Denver at TD Garden, and those who tuned in saw that starless team whose season was supposed to be a dead end pound on a tough Western Conference foe.
They saw the Celtics win for the fifth time in seven games, turning in a 106-98 result, and pad their lead in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division to 1 ½ games.
And the fans at the Garden seemed especially pleased at what they saw, as they were the loudest they’ve been all season.
“You know, earlier in the season, the Red Sox were still in the playoffs, so we didn’t get a lot of fans then,” swingman Gerald Wallace said. “And then a lot of people are just new to this team. So they’re still trying to figure out who we are.”
It seems like they’re starting to learn, just as the Celtics are starting to find a groove, one that has come by playing a team-focused game.
They racked up 25 assists Friday, three short of their season high, and also had just 10 turnovers, which tied their season low. Their ballhandling, in short, was excellent, and it helped them take a 27-point lead then withstand a late Denver surge before sealing the win.
The Celtics’ game plan was to attack the rim, because the fast-paced Nuggets feast on grabbing long rebounds off missed jumpers and then sprinting up the floor for a fast-break bucket.
“Our main thing was, we wanted them to take the ball out of the basket and kind of play against our half-court set defense,” Wallace said.
The Celtics followed that plan brilliantly in the first half, scoring the first 14 points while Denver missed its first eight shots.
Then Jeff Green hit a long 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left in the quarter to give the Celtics a 39-15 lead, matching Boston’s highest-scoring quarter this season.
The Celtics kept up their hot shooting and crisp passing in the second quarter, and they led by 20 at halftime.
Boston’s 64 first-half points marked its highest total for any half this season, and it reached that number after shooting a smooth 56.8 percent (25 of 44) from the field.
But the Nuggets opened the third quarter on a 20-4 run, putting a scare in the Celtics.
“You knew they were going to make a run,” said Jordan Crawford, who scored a game-high 22 points.
“They’re a great scoring team. You can’t be surprised by it. You’ve got to keep playing.”
A 7-0 Celtics run stopped the Denver surge, and the Celtics held on in the fourth.
The Celtics have been up by more than 20 at home before this season . . . and lost.
Assistant Ron Adams told Celtics coach Brad Stevens at halftime of that Nov. 1 game against Milwaukee, when Boston led by as many as 22, that 20-point halftime leads are hard to hold in the NBA.
“But the best part about tonight is things didn’t always go our way and we responded and I think that that’s a huge character trait of a good team, especially one that’s been beaten that way earlier in the season,” Stevens said.
Four starters scored in double figures Friday. Avery Bradley added 18 points, Jeff Green had 15 points, and Brandon Bass pitched in with 14 points and eight rebounds. Crawford added a game-high eight assists.
But perhaps the star of the night was forward Kris Humphries, who has played sparingly this season, including not playing at all in six games.
Against the Nuggets, Humphries scored 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting in 24 minutes off the bench.
He also grabbed seven rebounds and came up with key baskets to stop Denver’s second-half run.
“We’re winning and stuff, I don’t like to focus on me and where I’m at,” Humphries said. “We’re at the top of the division, so that’s what’s important.”
Humphries also played well when Jared Sullinger did not, with 8 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
“That shows a big sign about our team,” Sullinger said. “That somebody is not playing well — particularly myself — you got people like Kris Humphries to step in and take charge.”
And now the Celtics will head to New York to play the teams in the basement of the division: New York (Sunday) and Brooklyn (Tuesday).
Both of those teams, which boast the two highest payrolls in basketball, will play before national audiences this season, as they have the stars and the intriguing story lines, though the story now is focused on their struggles.
To the north, meanwhile, the Celtics’ story has been one of improvement.
“We’re playing as a team, executing, everybody is buying in,” Crawford said.
Anyone who watched Friday — whether at the Garden or on TV — would have to agree.