DENVER — When Nuggets center Nikola Jokic checked back into his team’s game against the Celtics early in the third quarter Sunday, ‘MVP’ chants poured down.
They were logical, since Jokic is, in fact, the reigning MVP, and he is on track to win the award again. But in this case, even in his home arena, they were not for him.
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum stood at the foul line as waves of green-clad fans looked down and told him how they felt, with the Celtics well on their way to another romp, this one a 124-104 win.
Coach Ime Udoka said he prefers to sub out his stars gradually in blowouts, so there is less of a chance of a collapse. He’s had to do that often during this dominant stretch. But in this case, all it did was create the opportunities for curtain calls.
When center Robert Williams checked out to a rousing ovation, he put his hands above his head and thanked the crowd with his own applause, sort of like a tennis player after a big point. Later, the swarms waited for Tatum to complete his postgame television interview and then erupted as he walked toward the tunnel with both arms in the air. It was easy to forget that this was Colorado.
“It’s a great feeling,” Tatum said. “You expect that or get that at home, but when you travel and see all the Celtics jerseys and T-shirts and hoodies, and hear them chanting for you on the road, that’s an incredible feeling.”
There are certainly plenty of Boston supporters here, but coach Ime Udoka pointed out that they wouldn’t be reacting this way if the team’s play was still crummy. Earlier this season, boos often filled TD Garden. But this team has completely reversed course, turned skeptics into believers, and made everyone wonder what could be possible.
“It took a little time to figure things out,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “And we’ve still got a lot of improvement, so don’t — yeah, just wait.”
The Celtics knew this Western Conference road trip could present some challenges, but so far, there have not really been any. They throttled the Warriors by 22 points, the Kings by 29, and now they flicked away the Nuggets by 20.
With Sunday’s win, Boston (44-28) is now in a virtual tie with the 76ers for third place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind the second-place Bucks. A Celtics team that was once in danger of missing the playoffs completely is now in position to have a smooth road.
Tatum and Brown finished with 30 points apiece for the second consecutive game to lead the Celtics’ rejuvenated offense.
Payton Pritchard was 5 for 5 from beyond the arc and scored 17 points, leading several big contributions from the bench. Grant Williams had 13 points and also helped hold Jokic to 8-for-23 shooting. The Celtics outscored the Nuggets by 21 points during Jokic’s 33 minutes on the court. When Brown arrived at his post-game press conference, he said that Williams had requested he be called Batman now, perhaps because he had limited Jokic, who is known as the Joker.
Brown chuckled and said he was skeptical about this request, but everyone was feeling good after yet another blowout win, so why not?
“[Grant] did his job, so I’m here doing mine,” Brown said, smiling.
Boston shot 57.3 percent from the field and 47.5 percent from the 3-point line, made all 11 of its free throws, and dished out 29 assists.
The Celtics pulled away using a massive 24-2 run late in the second quarter. Six of Boston’s last seven field goals of the half were 3-pointers, and Pritchard led the way by going 4 for 4 from beyond the arc in the period.
The Nuggets trailed, 40-36, with just under eight minutes left, and went to the break facing a 68-43 deficit. Denver coach Mike Malone was so disgusted by his team’s first-half effort that he benched all of his starters at the beginning of the second.
“It was just trying to give a spark and a jolt, and they did that, to their credit,” Udoka said. “The thing I loved about us, we bounced back three or four times when they made any runs.”
Boston stretched its lead to 28 points before the Nuggets showed hints of a late comeback. They pulled within 104-88 on a pair of Aaron Gordon free throws with 8:30 left, and the crowd was hopeful. But Tatum smothered the mild rally before it could become a significant concern. He calmly hit a 3-pointer from the left corner, and then soared in for a loud, one-handed slam that pushed the lead back to 21.
The swarms of fans who had been chanting “MVP” for Tatum came to their feet once more, and the surge continued.
“We’ve just got to take it one game at a time, stay healthy, and then the sky is the limit,” Brown said. “Beyond the sky, to be honest.”