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Nuggets overwhelm Celtics for full four quarters in 119-99 blowout win

Celtics fail to lead once in a game where the Nuggets routinely answered every good play they were able to muster. Stops weren’t just spare, they were nonexistent, as Boston finishes their final west coast trip at 2-3. Nikola Jokic goes off for 21 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists leading a 53% offensive effort as a team.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Since the all-star break ended the Celtics have walked on their hands. They’ve defeated the Cavaliers and Warriors with a completely new approach to success, getting stops. The vicious offensive pace they were on to that point has sputtered back to earth, and the defense expected before the season opened against Brooklyn has spontaneously arisen.

Boston lost its first 19 games under Brad Stevens on the road against the western conference before going on a run of 13 for 26 through this trip; which has featured a blowout win, buzzer beater and blowout losses, and the team’s best victory of the season on Wednesday.

In Denver, their last journey to play the west until the NBA Finals (optimism), they stood fully healthy with a 7-7 record on the road in 2016-17 vs. the western conference. What they ran into was a Nuggets team rushing toward a playoff spot, playing at a pace representative of their urgency. Suddenly, the Celtics looked like the same team they did in their loss to Denver in Boston. Defensively challenged to say the least and lost without drawing close once, 119-99.

The Celtics have now lost twice to the Nuggets by a combined 36 points.

“These guys are a high level opponent,” Brad Stevens said. “If we play bad, we get beat no matter who...our team’s margin is not what other’s is. We looked slower to the ball...they had us on our heel’s the rest of the night...they are hard to guard.”

The ascension of Nikola Jokic, playing at the rate of a more overwhelming Al Horford, has made them a bigger threat to upset teams with the NBA’s second highest scoring offense.

It didn’t take Boston long to hear his name called, on an early rebound by Avery Bradley he batted the ball out of Bradley’s hands from behind and scored for the first basket of the game. The dribble penetration of Denver was stymied by two turnaround blocks at the rim by Amir Johnson, including one where he caught up to a cutting Wilson Chandler who had nothing but open road in front of him after Jokic dished the rock to him while backing down Horford.

Boston’s offense stayed competitive behind Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley, the latter of which routinely beat defenders around screens to hit deep two-pointers off the dribble. Down 18-12, Jae Crowder was able to save a ball going out on the defensive baseline and push it inbounds to Thomas who took it coast-to-coast, pulling within four.

Denver was shooting at a 50% clip, Jokic backed into the deep post routinely and scored easy layups at the rim off quick up-fakes. Horford was able to take it to him on the defensive end several times, with an array of spin moves and shot-fakes leading to jumpers. Denver began to take advantage of their defense with hard drives and kicks. More often than not the Nuggets were simply able to score at the rim on initial penetration.

Will Barton rushed by Boston’s defense, then Thomas by Miles Plumlee for an easy two points. Marcus Smart stood high at the wing as the defense backed off and drilled a three, before Jameer Nelson followed suit and sliced through the defense for a layup.

Kelly Olynyk, with the Celts down 35-25 after one, was a non-factor following his dominant game at Golden State; a costly turnover was his first impression on the game, rolling the ball out of bounds from the high post.

Smart kept an ensuing miss in play, battling to get his own miss and putting it back up to get to the free throw line. Then the Nuggets started roaring again, as Miles Plumlee slowly creeped into the high post before he threw to a trailing Juan Hernangomez for three.

Jaylen Brown and Smart were able to create some rare penetration for the Celts and score four points around the rim, but there were no stops to be found. Plumlee hit a quick jumper in response and Barton drove and kicked to Darrell Arthur for three in transition. A 5-0 swing left Denver up 46-31 and Hernangomez hit two free throws before Smart broke the run grabbing his own miss twice between three opposing bodies and finally putting it back.

Then Jamal Murray happened. A rush by the entire defense for two. An attempted two-three zone by the Celts worked once, before Chandler beat it on a hesitation cut by Crowder as he focused on the middle. Then Murray scored twice more on hard drives through the entire defense.

All the Celts could spare in response was a Bradley three. Murray should have had another three before he exited on a quick dish up-court from Jokic on a stop, but he missed and stepped off with the Nuggets up 58-41.

Every punch the Celts could muster had a response. Bradley hit a deep two on a full-court rush out of the timeout. Jokic immediately followed with a three-point play on a stutter-step drive to the rim.

The Celts mustered their best stretch of play against a Denver defense that helped them keep close all night toward the half. Crowder knocked down an open corner three on a simple switch miss, Jokic turned it over under the basket and Gerald Green hit a stand-up three on the other end. Another turnover got the C’s run to 8-0 before Jokic tore it down; standing up high, reaching up and floating in a three-pointer.

His reign of fury continued seamlessly into the third with the Nuggets up 65-54. He started the frame by splitting two defenders on a post-up and turning to find Danilo Gallinari for three. He’d get himself two free throws after Thomas hit a deep two on the dribble, then he rushed 75% of the court alone to score on a tough hook shot. Thomas responded by crossing him off balance at the free throw line and hitting a jumper. The action-packed game stood at 72-61 Denver at that point, but Denver never lost control of the action. They were at their lowest when Jokic turned the ball over, but he made up for it with a bevy of playmaking on and off the ball.

Even the good defensive moments turned bad for Boston, with Bradley and Smart switching smoothly to force a Nelson air-ball that landed right in Jokic’s hands, who then scored through the foul underneath. Nelson sparked a run of seven straight Nuggets points with only a Horford jumper in response, keeping Denver up 82-69. Then Crowder banged hard with Gallinari on a drive, forced the ball out of his hands, and when he recovered he was still able to grind past Crowder for a floater in the post.

There were shades of a comeback. Crowder backed down in the post and found Horford for a great bump-and-score on a cut. But the game was encapsulated in the fact that each great play was followed by a response, such as Chandler finding a wide-open three off a simple high screen as Boston failed to switch.

The Celts had a chance to end the third with a two-for-one as Green got to the free throw line with 26 seconds left. Instead the ensuing stop was spoiled by another Plumlee put-back.

Another sign of hope came in the early moments of the fourth as a lineup featuring Brown, Crowder, Horford and Smart bumped hard with Denver in the defensive zone and forced turnovers. Smart got a steal-and-score and Brown was able to score through a foul in the early moments after Plumlee threw a ball away.

Denver led 96-87, about as close as Boston pushed their deficit in the fourth quarter, before the Nuggets got back to cruising offensively. Gallinari and Barton traded deep threes, and Plumlee floated in a hook shot in a span of just over one minute while the Celts kept pace with five points from Horford.

Then the scoring ceased, with both teams trading misses and free throws from the 7:30 point until 2:48, the C’s led that slow race to the finish 5-4 but it made little impact on their 15 point deficit. Then Thomas’ technical foul allowed the Nuggets to tie the run.

Nelson ran by Crowder on the next inbound play and got straight to the rim with no opposition and immediately Tyler Zeller, Jordan Mickey, Demetrius Jackson and Gerald Green relieved the starters of their duties with 1:58 to go. The Celtics’ defensive poise evaporated faster than their three-point lead turned into a loss in Phoenix. Denver left the game leaving it in ruins with a start-to-finish effort and suddenly, as the Celtics return home, they find themselves one game behind the Wizards in the loss column.