When Celtics coach Brad Stevens settled in to watch film of the Nuggets in recent days, the scenes were ominous.
He saw a tall and physical team that seemed to pose problems for Boston, particularly with Jae Crowder and Al Horford still sidelined. And then Denver was flattened by the Pistons on Saturday, and to Stevens that felt like even more of a harbinger.
He tried to warn his players. He tried to tell them what was coming. He tried to get them to realize that finesse would not work against bullies.
“You’re going to take a real shot from these guys because they’re going to be amped to play,” Stevens told the Celtics before Sunday night’s game. “Because they were embarrassed last night.”
Despite that siren, the Celtics were not ready. They did not play as aggressively as they so often did last season, when loose balls became theirs, and opponents’ mistakes piled up because the Celtics’ relentlessness made them pile up.
When the final seconds of this 123-107 loss ticked away, some boos poured down from the fans who had actually stayed until the end of this sloppy night.
Celtics guard Avery Bradley was hopeful that they were booing the Nuggets, perhaps for stomping into TD Garden and having their way. But that is not how boos generally work.
Although the Celtics are playing shorthanded, and although they are 3-3 and not exactly free-falling, Stevens and the players spoke afterward as if sweeping changes might be in order.
The problem is that when three of your top players are sidelined with injuries, the amount of sweeping change that is even possible is limited. Stevens said he would consider shifting playing time, or using different substitution patterns, or even creating a new scheme altogether.
While reinventing a scheme might seem a bit rash given the circumstances, it is very clear that the Celtics’ coach will not idly stand by and witness stumbles, not from a group like this that has so much promise.
“I’ve got to look at everything we’re doing,” Stevens said, “and go from there.”
Crowder was on the bench in dress clothes, still recovering from a sprained ankle. Horford left the arena before tipoff to watch the game in a quiet room at home as he recovers from a concussion.
But for the Celtics, even having two of their top defenders sidelined did not explain what transpired in the first half. Denver scored inside and out, draining shots and drawing fouls and basically getting points wherever and whenever it pleased.
“The physical thing is an attitude, not backing down, not thinking we’re the best team in the NBA, I guess,” point guard Isaiah Thomas said. “It’s a mind-set thing. We’ve shown we can be a physical team. We’ve shown we can play at a high level on the defensive end, but we’re not showing it this season. And we’ll have a bad season if we don’t show that soon.”
Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay had 24 points in the first quarter, outscoring the Celtics on his own. He made 9 of 10 shots in the period.
Bradley looked at the scouting report before the game and saw that Mudiay was just a 31 percent 3-point shooter during his career. Although it was out of character for Mudiay to catch fire by hitting three 3-pointers, he may have gained that confidence by gobbling up an offensive rebound and scoring early in the game.
“He got comfortable,” Bradley said, “as you can see.”
Former Celtic Jameer Nelson scored in the lane with 5:10 left in the second quarter to give the Nuggets their largest lead, 66-41. The Celtics trailed at halftime, 77-52, and the first boos of the season trickled down. The Celtics had not given up that many points in an opening half since Feb. 8, 2005, when the Bucks had 78 points in a game at Milwaukee.
Boston started the third quarter noticeably more aggressive on defense, forcing four turnovers on Denver’s first five possessions and gaining some momentum with an 8-0 burst. A 3-pointer by Marcus Smart with 5:56 left pulled the Celtics within 84-69 and gave the home crowd hope, but it turned out to be fleeting.
Mudiay ultimately tied his career high with 30 points and Wilson Chandler added 22. But the better indicator of this game’s tenor might have come when forward Kenneth Faried slammed his body against the floor while diving for a ball with less than four minutes left, and his team leading by 23 points.
“The bottom line is when you have a spot you have to hold it,” Stevens said. “When you have a spot, you have to take it. And we’re not.”
Stevens turned the blame for the shortcomings on himself. After the game he told his players it was his fault, because he had watched them play this way. Bradley, for one, thinks the onus falls on the players, too.
“People just need to bring it every single night,” he said. “I’m going to bring it every single night.”