In a potential NBA Finals preview, the Nuggets hand the Celtics their first home loss of the season.
BOSTON — The drive for the biggest win of the season began in the wake of the loss.
One by one, as the Denver Nuggets headed toward the team buses on a frigid Tuesday night in Philadelphia, the idea came almost in unison. They gave up one goal in the final five minutes against the 76ers. They turned the ball over too much. They did not fire when it was necessary. They failed to deal Joel Embiid. And the game that was there to capture it is lost.
They couldn’t allow that to happen again in a week that saw the tragic and sudden passing of Golden State Warriors assistant Dejan Milojevic, who was coaching Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in Serbia. The last few days haven’t been easy. Milojevic was beloved throughout the league by coaches and players. Jokic was sad and didn’t feel like speaking to the media.
Denver coach Michael Malone said after its victory over the Boston Celtics 102-100 on Friday evening: “In the past two days, we have been supporting him, consoling him and hugging him.” “As I mentioned to our team, I couldn’t be prouder of Nicolas for playing the way he did. If you lose someone you love and care about, go honor them. That’s what Nicolas did.”
The Nuggets (29-14) became the first team this season to waste a loss to the Celtics (32-10) at TD Garden. Boston’s 20-0 streak was something the Nuggets talked about on the plane to Boston, at the end of their workouts in Emerson College’s humid gym, and again Friday morning. Capturing it was something they fought valiantly for between the lines.
More importantly, in what was perhaps a preview of the NBA Finals, the Nuggets laid out a blueprint for how to handle Boston’s five-man offense and the volume of three-pointers it produces. Denver showed athleticism and matchup. Malone assigned Jokić to Jrue Holiday and Michael Porter Jr. to Kristaps Porziņģis, trying to stay home while shooting for the big man. Malone reversed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with star forward Jayson Tatum so Tatum couldn’t enjoy Denver’s second unit. Malone played Aaron Gordon the entire second half and played with just seven men in the second half.
This roster knows what it takes to win. Nuggets drank champagne in June. They put up a banner in October. They threw stones on their fingers on the night of the ring. For a team that wants more, this was one of those nights in a normal January that doesn’t come around too often. Friday night was a measuring game, where a team gunning for another title could best the main competition for that goal.
“We pushed all our chips to the middle of the table,” Malone said. “And we were lucky enough to get the result we wanted.”
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Have the Nuggets once again established themselves as title favorites? It’s hard to say otherwise. Their balance, consistency of the starting lineup, and understanding of what to do from possession to possession is unparalleled in the league. As talented, deep and experienced as the Celtics are, the Nuggets had more answers down the stretch on both ends of the floor.
Jokic had 34 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. He did so on 14-of-22 shooting from the field in 38 grueling minutes, while hounding the Celtics around the perimeter defensively. In an NBA filled with talent and depth, Jokic still stands at the top of the mountain. In front of a hostile crowd, his bag full of floaters, jumpers and footwork in the paint silenced the crowd time and time again.
Jamal Murray was almost as good, scoring 35 points on a variety of jumpers and curling finishes in the paint and at the basket. He had eight rebounds and five assists. He cooked almost anyone Boston tried on him and ran the offense in the minutes Jokic was on the bench. On their final possession, the Nuggets forced Tatum to fumble the ball for their biggest win of the season.
“Both teams were throwing haymakers, and we were able to land the final punch,” Murray said. “We mixed it up, and they did the same thing for a few periods. It was a technical game. It was a game where everyone had to be on the same page. Every time, there was something different. There were different defenses on almost every possession. It was just One of those matches you had to figure out.
Afterwards, Gordon sat in his closet, wrapped in ice, almost like a mummy. Jokic sat in his booth for about an hour, soaking wet. The Nuggets aren’t as deep as they were last season, and that’s worth watching as they head into the postseason, but that doesn’t stop them from being championship favorites.
Malone trusted seven players almost exclusively in a game he coached like a playoff game. There were eight last season. The most notable omission was Christian Brown, who has been a valuable reserve this season. He played just five minutes on Friday, and with him on the floor, the Celtics were able to throw tough double teams at Jokic. Overnight, Jokic and Murray scored or assisted on 89 of their 102 points, and even if that was sustainable, other than a late-game flurry from Porter, the Nuggets weren’t as balanced as they wanted to or should be.
But they are still as good as they were last season in that run to the title. The collective chip on their shoulders hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, it’s bigger. And the ability to play at an elite level when needed is as ubiquitous as ever.
This means that the road to the championship still passes through Denver. And good luck to the rest of the NBA trying to take a title away from a team as good as this one, which sits a mile above sea level.
(Photo: Brian Babineaux/NBAE via Getty Images)
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