BOSTON – A double-digit lead in hand, Celtics irritant Grant Williams did his best to milk the fourth-quarter clock.
Williams stepped in front of Aaron Gordon with 5:06 left, and then paid the price for impeding his path to the ball. When Gordon leveled Williams, drawing a flagrant one, he embodied the frustration Denver felt all night against a feisty Boston squad. Behind scorching 3-point shooting, and the all-star level play of Boston’s two pillars, the Celtics snapped the Nuggets’ four-game winning streak with a 131-112 win.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 59 points and five 3-pointers.
“That’s what they do,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “… We did nothing to take it away.”
Veteran forward Al Horford added six more from 3-point range. Boston’s effort on the glass helped demoralize Denver, and neither of the Nuggets’ defensive aces Kentavious Caldwell-Pope nor Boston-bred Bruce Brown could contain the Celtics’ fantastic duo. Brown estimated there were around 60 people there, in total, for him.
“I played decent,” Brown said of his 16-point, 10-rebound, six-assist night. “Could’ve played a lot better.”
He lamented some of the baskets Tatum finished even through his quality defense.
Nikola Jokic registered 29 points and eight assists, and Jamal Murray finished with 14 points and 10 dimes.
Now 8-4, Denver will conclude its four-game road trip on Sunday at Chicago.
Nothing appeared abnormal as Bones Hyland went through his typical pre-game shooting routine on the court about two hours before the game, but the team ruled him out shortly after due to health and safety protocols. It was a significant loss for a second unit that’s lacked punch without their spirited point guard.
On numerous occasions in the third, the Nuggets defended Brown well, contesting his shots and living in his space. It didn’t matter. The Boston cornerstone wasn’t missing. But similar to Wednesday’s result in Indiana, the Nuggets didn’t hang their heads at the difficult makes. Instead, while Jokic, again, found himself in foul trouble, Denver found its stroke from 3-point range.
Murray quieted Celtics nation with a 3-pointer from the wing, and Caldwell-Pope caught fire. For the second game in a row, he knocked down three 3-pointers in the third to spark his teammates. Hyland’s absence was felt, but Caldwell-Pope and Brown helped bridge the offensive gap. Every time the Nuggets inched closer, the Celtics would engineer a timely second-chance bucket or 3-pointer. Still, Denver entered the fourth trailing just 97-91.
The first two games of Denver’s road trip flipped when the Nuggets engaged defensively in the second half. Against the best offense in the league, Malone knew there’d be no such luxury.
“We can’t wait until the third quarter to try to turn it on because the game will be over at halftime if that’s the case,” he said.
It nearly was, until Denver’s starters injected life into the game midway through the second quarter. Down 18 with 4:33 left in the first half, Boston’s defense started softening up as Jokic turned aggressive. He and Murray worked their magical two-man game and systematically trimmed the Celtics’ lead. Jokic scored eight points in the second quarter alone, momentarily combatting Boston’s deadly pairing of Tatum and Brown.
By halftime, Boston’s lead was down to a manageable 66-57.
Tatum and Brown combined for 29 points over the first two quarters, while Jokic entered the break with a team-high 13. Denver’s defensive stoppers – Caldwell-Pope and Brown – played respectable defense; Boston’s offense was just better.
“It’s the reason we went out and got those guys,” Malone said of his team’s offseason additions.
Without Hyland available, Jokic was noticeably more assertive. Murray, his preferred dance partner, entered halftime with seven assists.
That Denver managed to keep the margin to single digits was a minor miracle given that Boston shot 56% from the field, including 9-for-19 from the 3-point line.