When the Celtics and Nuggets met in Denver two weeks ago, Kemba Walker was being wheeled off the court on a stretcher after suffering a scary neck injury, and Boston was on its way to losing for the third time in four games, its first true rut of the year.
But that low point did not last long. The team was relieved to quickly find out that Walker’s injury was not serious, and then the wins started rolling in again behind the inspired play of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
On Friday night, these teams met again, and the script and location were both quite different.
Boston seized the lead at the start and never relinquished it, as it soared ahead by 23 points before cruising to a 108-95 win, its fifth in six games.
Earlier in the day, coach Brad Stevens said Gordon Hayward, who remains out with a broken hand, will take part in the team’s next practice, and that his return could follow relatively soon after. And this 16-5 start, combined with the realization that the Celtics will soon be at full strength again, could be enough to make the rest of the conference quiver a bit.
“Everybody’s having fun,” guard Marcus Smart said. “Everybody’s getting in there and making plays for the team, and it shows. It shows on our faces, it shows the way we play, it shows with every day we come into this locker room.”
The Nuggets entered the night with the NBA’s top-ranked defense, but it did not always look like it Friday. The Celtics connected on 53.7 percent of their shots and consistently gashed Denver’s interior defenders with strong drives to the basket that resulted in layups.
Tatum led Boston with 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists and Brown added 21 points and 7 rebounds. Walker, who was forced to carry the Hornets throughout his eight years in Charlotte, continues to appreciate the fact that he does not always need to do that here. He had 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting, and that was more than enough as he ceded to Brown and Tatum when necessary.
“Those guys are still getting better,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Clearly, improving in a lot of areas. I think that they are really enjoying player together and figuring it out with the rest of our team. It’s more fun to be kind of a central player that we’re going to and all those occasions and they are taking advantage of, doing a really good job of it.”
Nikola Jokic had 30 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Nuggets, but no other Denver player had more than 10 points. The Nuggets, who played in New York on Thursday night while the Celtics rested, started the game by making 1 of 15 3-pointers before finishing 5 of 30 from beyond the arc.
But, after the game, coach Mike Malone said the larger issue was the way the Celtics had made his team’s top-ranked defense look like it was a mistake.
“The biggest thing I thought for us was our inability to guard one-on-one,” Malone said. “They did a great job of it, made everything hard. We had at least 16 blow-bys, which they scored 25 points on.”
Smart returned for Boston after missing one game with an illness and a bruised oblique, and it was like he had never left. Less than a minute passed before he had helped force a turnover and ended up on his backside while tipping an offensive rebound. He made 4 of 5 shots and scored 9 points and, most importantly, said afterward that he felt great.
The Celtics are now 9-0 at home this season, and that includes wins over powerful teams such as the Bucks, Raptors and, now, the Nuggets. But the Celtics, despite some perceived flaws they entered the season with, are proving time and again that they are a powerful team, too.
Despite their flashy record, Boston has had some uninspiring starts this year that have forced it to claw back from big deficits. The players have vowed to fix that issue, and for one night, at least, they did. Walker converted a layup just 16 seconds into the game, and the Nuggets were not even able to tie the score again.
Boston unfurled the game’s defining run late in the third quarter. With the Nuggets lingering, down, 74-64, Brown and Tatum teamed up to all but finish them off.
The 13-0 burst was highlighted by a soaring one-handed slam by Brown off a feed from Tatum that was followed soon after by a crushing stepback 3-pointer by Tatum that slid through the net with 1.7 seconds left.
“They have to guard everybody,” Brown said, referring to Boston’s deep stable of offensive threats.