The Celtics arrived in Denver with a needed jolt of confidence following a pair of comeback wins over the Knicks and Timberwolves. But the fact remained that they probably should not have had to comeback against those teams in the first place.
When Boston fell behind the Nuggets by double digits on Sunday and remained in that range for much of the afternoon, it appeared that the degree of difficulty of a potential rally against a team that had won eight in a row might be too great.
But then the Celtics blitzed Denver with one of the most massive runs of the Brad Stevens era, using a 31-3 burst that started late in the third quarter and went deep into the fourth. Boston flipped a 14-point deficit into a 14-point lead before ultimately cruising to a 105-87 win.
Denver was 3 for 23 from the field in the fourth quarter and scored just 8 points in the game’s final 14 minutes, 16 seconds.
“Tonight was great,” Celtics point guard Kemba Walker said. “We had a great comeback and we kind of never looked back. We got stronger as the game went on.”
Jayson Tatum, coming off his historic 53-point performance against Minnesota, was not perfect this time, making just 9 of 23 shots. But he had 28 points and 10 rebounds anyway, including 10 consecutive Boston points in the middle of its run.
The Celtics won comfortably despite making just 7 of 33 3-pointers, an indication that they did things the hard way: With a tough, screen-switching defense and powerful drives to the rim. Boston connected on 19 of 28 two-point shots in the second half.
MVP favorite Nikola Jokic had 17 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for Denver, but the game flipped while he was on the bench, and his frustration after he checked in later was obvious.
A Facundo Campazzo 3-pointer with 2:17 left in the third quarter gave the Nuggets a seemingly comfortable 79-65 lead. Everything unraveled for Denver after that. The Celtics closed the quarter with a quick 9-0 burst that was capped by Walker’s steal and 3-point play with 0.5 seconds left.
Jaylen Brown and Tatum scored inside to start the fourth and a pair of Romeo Langford free throws gave Boston an 80-79 lead, its first since the opening quarter.
But the surge did not end there. Tatum scored 10 points over the next three minutes, and by the time Grant Williams scored inside with 4:43 left to make it 96-82, Boston had unspooled the 31-3 run that flipped one blowout into another.
“I think since I’ve been on the Celtics, especially even this year, we always give ourselves a chance,” Tatum said. “We kind of turned it up even more in that third quarter. I feel like sometimes we have to rely on the fourth quarter, whether we’re down 15 or whatever, and then you’ve damn near got to be perfect at the end, and it doesn’t always go our way. So we kind of picked it up early in the third and gave ourselves a longer chance and just kind of ran with it.”
Evan Fournier remained out for the Celtics because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Nuggets star Jamal Murray sat out because of knee pain.
Observations from the game:
▪ Grant Williams checked in with Boston trailing, 76-62, with 3:15 left in the third quarter. By the time he checked out following his 11-minute, 52-second stretch, the Celtics led by 11 points. He had just 2 points and a rebound during that segment, but he was an essential part of the switch-heavy defense that the Celtics deployed. Also, for part of that run he was primarily responsible for slowing down the 6-foot-11-inch Jokic.
“I was just trying to take him out [of his] rhythm as well as make it easier for the guys around me, because we were getting beat on back-cuts and a lot of stuff at that time,” Grant Williams said. “So we had Rob [Williams] behind to protect me at the rim if he got too deep and then he was able to contest shots and also get back to the shooters like Aaron Gordon or Michael Porter.”
▪ It’s best to be cautious while assessing this Celtics team, but this is certainly an important stretch. They were a DeAngelo Russell jumper away from losing to the Timberwolves on Friday, and were nearly walloped in this game. Instead, they have won five of their last six, and news broke Saturday that Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis are both expected to miss Thursday’s matchup in Los Angeles.
“It’s certainly going in the right direction,” Tatum said. “We still have some things to improve on. But hopefully we can just continue to build off this.”
▪ Jokic entered the day averaging 26.3 points per game, the ninth highest total in the league. But he was unable to find a rhythm in the opening half, when he went just 1 for 5 and scored 3 points. He appeared to have some issues with Robert Williams’s length, although he did dish out six assists.
Jokic seized control in the third quarter, when he had 14 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. But he checked out with 1:13 left and by the time he returned with 8:39 left in the fourth, his team trailed.
“I think we needed to do a better job just answering the physicality,” Jokic said, “not just playing around and going through the motions.”
▪ Tatum and Brown combined to go 0 for 8 from the field and were scoreless in the opening quarter. The Nuggets made a mistake by fouling Tatum on a 3-pointer early in the second quarter, and that trip to the line helped him establish his rhythm. Rather than simply settling for jumpers he consistently attacked downhill, converting a pair of 3-point plays and scoring 11 points in the quarter.
▪ The Celtics have struggled to get to the foul line in general this season, but it was not an issue in the opening half, when they attempted 16 free throws. That helped them offset their 2 for 17 shooting from beyond the arc.