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Avery Bradley shoots Celtics past Nuggets

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Emmanuel Mudiay and the Nuggets had a difficult time containing the Celtics’ Avery Bradley, who scored 21 first-half points.Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Celtics 111
Nuggets 103

Just before the calendar turned to a new year, the Celtics were riding a four-game winning streak and looking at an appetizing part of their schedule that included three games against the lowly Nets and Lakers.

There was understandable optimism and hope that a more sizable streak could be imminent. Instead, Boston lost two of those three games and spiraled into a rut, losing six of seven overall.

So there was good reason to approach this upcoming stretch with caution. Once again there was a winning streak, this time three games. And once again the upcoming slate appeared navigable, with just two of the next 17 games coming against surefire playoff teams.

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And for one night on Wednesday, at least, the Celtics kept their focus. They seized control early and never really relinquished it, taking a 111-103 win over the Nuggets.

"We don't have any room really to [look past an opponent]," guard Evan Turner said. "Every game is important to us, so we're trying to build and do better and play to our standards and keep getting better. These games are very important. We just can't do what a lot of NBA teams do, whether it be kind of take a break before the All-Star break."

The Celtics led by as many as 22 points and mostly stayed disciplined throughout the game. They gathered 15 steals and forced 20 turnovers, reaching that mark for the fourth consecutive game. That left Denver coach Mike Malone flustered.

"You try to prepare your team and you say this is what is going to happen and you hope you can avoid those pitfalls," he said. "But we talked about how this team is very active on the defensive end. They turn you over, they get a lot of steals, and they average close to 19 points a game. So we gave them 20 points off our 20 turnovers."

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Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver's rookie point guard, said Boston was the most aggressive team the Nuggets have faced this season.

"And we've seen a lot of good teams," he said.

That aggression, the notion of simply playing harder than an opponent, has become a trademark of this Boston team. The main danger, it seems, is that when that level of intensity drops even slightly, the Celtics immediately become vulnerable.

"We have a lot of room to improve, but when we turn it up and we're in the right position we can be a good defensive team," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "I think I've always said, 'If we don't play well, we won't win.' If we don't guard, we won't win. And so that's part of us playing well."

Avery Bradley tied his season high with 27 points to lead the Celtics. Stevens has now found a regular rotation, but there are still some nuances to the various groups. Bradley, a starter, has found success playing with the second unit, bringing extra shooting to a group that includes Turner and Marcus Smart at guard.

"With Avery's skill and Kelly [Olynyk's] skill in that group playing together at the start of the second quarter," Stevens said, "that has been a productive group for us."

Olynyk continued his solid play, tallying 17 points and seven rebounds. Will Barton paced Denver with 23 points.

Bradley made three 3-pointers in the first 7 minutes, 10 seconds, the last giving the Celtics a 19-11 lead.

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The Celtics, who entered the night second in the NBA in steals per game, quickly showed the Nuggets that there is great danger in being lazy with the ball against them. They had six steals in the first quarter and took 29-21 lead.

Denver briefly pulled within 31-28 with a Barton 3-pointer early in the second quarter, but the Celtics had little trouble extending the lead behind Bradley's torrid shooting.

With 5:20 left before halftime, Smart chased down Gary Harris and stole the ball from behind, then surged upcourt and found Bradley for another 3-pointer. A little more than a minute later, Bradley drained his fifth three of the half, helping send the Celtics to the break with a 55-45 advantage.

"Not only does Avery set the tone offensively, but he's always great defensively," Turner said. "For the most part when he gets going it opens up everything else, because he flies off the screens 100 miles per hour."

The Celtics stretched their lead to 14 in the third quarter, but Stevens had watched film and was wary of Denver's resiliency. And sure enough, back-to-back baskets by Barton late in the third made it 75-70.

But then Denver finally crumbled, as the Celtics unspooled an 18-1 run that started in the third period and oozed into the fourth.

Olynyk hit another 3-pointer and then Turner hit a long jumper before receiving a long outlet pass from Smart and coasting in for a dunk, capping the strong burst that made it 93-71.

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The Nuggets eventually trimmed the deficit to 10, but their threat did not advance beyond that.

Subscribe to our Celtics' podcast, On The Parquet here. Listen to the lastest episode below.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.