DENVER — We’re not used to seeing this type of fortitude, the fight and the execution from this edition of the Celtics, especially against the elite teams.
The Denver Nuggets had won eight games in a row and 17 of 20. They simply outplayed and outhustled the Celtics for the 34 minutes Sunday at Ball Arena.
While the Celtics have spent this season never being quite bad enough to get blown out by good opponents but never quite good enough to overcome sizable leads, they have tried to take solace in their ability to galvanize when they appear defeated.
This comeback, however, is the benchmark for any Celtics rally during the Brad Stevens era. This team that has been only showing flashes of dominance and consistency punched the streaking Nuggets in the mouth and never relented in their stirring 105-87 win.
The Celtics ended the game on a 40-8 run, blitzing the Nuggets defensively and attacking the rim for easy baskets. Boston won despite missing 26 of 33 3-point shots. Usually when the 3-pointer isn’t falling, the Celtics wilt. Not this time.
“We could have let it get away from us,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “They were up big. Since I’ve been on the Celtics, especially this year, we have always given ourselves a chance. We turned it up even more in that third quarter. I feel like sometimes we have to rely on the fourth quarter and then you damn near got to be perfect.
“We gave ourselves more of a chance and we ran with it.”
A team that has lost twice to the Pelicans, Kings and Pistons now has two wins over the Nuggets, and the Celtics are banking that it’s the perfect time to regain their swagger from early in the season. Road wins like these are momentum builders, especially when the Celtics looked fried, trailing by 14 with 2:17 left in the third quarter after a Facundo Campazzo layup.
But a critical thing happened to derail the Nuggets. Kemba Walker, badly losing his matchup to Campazzo, a 30-year-old rookie who has given fits to plenty of Team USA guards during his time with the Argentinian National team, decided he had enough.
He decided to use defensive aggression to feed his offense, stealing the ball from Campazzo for a breakaway layup and then ending the third quarter with a 3-point play to slice the deficit to 5. Walker then brought the Celtics to within 79-78 with a short jumper.
That’s the type of engaged Walker the Celtics need. He spent most of Sunday being passive, again starting painfully slow offensively and then getting beat by Campazzo’s energy on rebounds and backdoor plays. Walker, not so long ago, was a top five point guard in the NBA. That guy showed up in Denver for the final 14 minutes, winning his personal matchup and energizing his team.
After Walker raced down the floor for that layup and foul with 0.5 left in the third quarter, Jaylen Brown screamed in excitement, racing to help him off the floor. It was a significant play for Walker and the Celtics.
“We made a great comeback and we never looked back; we got stronger as the game went on,” Walker said. “It was a tough first half because those guys were playing well, making a lot of shots. When things aren’t going well, you’ve got to find a way to do other things, try to be good defensive, pick a teammate up, something.
“I thought (the play) energized the team as well. From that point on, we got it rolling, continued to play hard and came out with a big win. That was a really huge win for us.”
Just a few weeks ago, the Celtics had to grapple with the reality they didn’t trust each other as much as they should. Their on-court chemistry was shoddy. But the past three games have proved the Celtics do deeply care about winning and have the ability to flourish in those final quarters.
The Celtics walked off the floor Sunday as the mentally stronger and more composed team. Nikola Jokic became so frustrated with the defense of Grant Williams and the Celtics’ defensive adjustments, he stopped in the middle of a Boston fast break to argue a non-call and was removed from the game for the final 4:41.
This is an unforgiving league and the Celtics have to find a way to be this mean and relentless more often. For weeks now the Celtics had been seeking that signature win. Maybe it was last month at Milwaukee — but Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t play in the fourth quarter of that game — or it could have been two close wins over the Los Angeles Clippers.
But those victories pale in comparison with a 40-8 game-ending run, playing stifling enough defense to hold a Western Conference contender to 13 percent shooting the final quarter, sending their star player and MVP candidate into a bench sulk for the final minutes.
It was the ideal way for the Celtics to begin this three-game West Coast swing, winning what was tabbed the most difficult game. Signs are emerging that this team is beginning to feel better about itself, disregard its past troubles and play with the reckless abandon and desperation it should have all season.