While most of the NBA world was still reeling from the surprise news of a massive deal that moved Blake Griffin to the Pistons for a trade package including former Celtic Avery Bradley, the Celtics still had a game to play in Denver.
Both Denver and Boston have had pretty strong starts to their respective seasons. While the Nuggets are barely hanging onto a possible playoff berth with the 8th spot in the West right now, the Celtics after a run of recent losses are equally perilously clinging to the top spot in the East. But after a solid (albeit losing) effort against the current NBA champion Golden State Warriors, the Celtics seemed eager to get one in the win column.
The normally guard-heavy Boston Celtics were without backup PGs Marcus Smart and Shane Larkin, while Terry Rozier played on a sore ankle, leaving the team a little thin in the backcourt and putting extra pressure on Kyrie Irving to perform.
Denver opened up scoring, but the Celtics were quick to answer back as both Kyrie and Al Horford hit early three-pointers to jump-start the Celtics offense.
However, the offensive execution from both sides was a little stagnant in the first quarter, leading to a number of turnovers and some overall messy-looking basketball.
With both teams pushing the pace, the opening quarter quickly turned into a rapid-fire shootout. The Celtics saw greater success from behind the three-point line, allowing them to edge in front by 9 points after a 14-3 run, leading to a timeout from the Nuggets head coach.
Near the end of the first, Jayson Tatum pulled off this amazing sequence, proving he’s pushing through the so-called ‘rookie wall’ and moving closer to outright stardom with every single stutter-step and hesitation dribble.
The Celtics led by double digits after the first quarter, up 32-21 against the Nuggets, who struggled to keep up with the Celtics after the game’s pace rapidly accelerated. Marcus Morris and Daniel Theis provided some nice contributions on both ends of the floor as the Celtics found scorers up and down their roster.
The second quarter saw the Celtics step up their defensive efforts to match their early offensive success. The Celtics’ stifling defense was met by an equally aggressive approach from the Nuggets, who tried to go toe to toe with the NBA’s best defense and found themselves starkly outmatched.
The Celtics increased their lead and maintained control for much of the second. An 11-2 run from the Nuggets shifted the momentum back to the home team temporarily, but some stifling defense and solid shooting allowed the Celtics to quiet the crowd and keep control.
A last-second steal led to a buzzer-beater opportunity at the end of the half, but Jaylen Brown was unable to convert the bucket. Meanwhile, with the attention rightly focused on the final play, Marcus Morris and Trey Lyles got into some kind of scuffle under the rim, leading the refs to issue a double technical during the break.
Either way, the Celtics held onto their lead and finished the half up 56-45. Kyrie Irving led all scorers with 15 off of 6-for-7 shooting, and Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris both scored in double digits with almost everyone on the Celtics roster contributing.
After the energy they showed in the first half, the Celtics started the third quarter fairly sluggishly. The Nuggets took advantage of the Celtics’ sudden lackadaisical efforts and worked their way back into the game.
A timeout from Brad Stevens seemed to resolve little, as the Nuggets frontcourt continued to run rampant on the same defense that had so soundly contained them in the first half. A 10-2 run in what was only a 2-minute stretch brought the game to within a single basket, and the Celtics infuriatingly seemed unable to do anything about it, missing basket after basket.
Another basket from Gary Harris tied up the score, and a three-pointer from second-year rookie Jamal Murray gave the Nuggets the lead. With the third quarter winding down, the home team had taken over, and the Celtics scrambled to get back in it.
Yet again the game reverted to a fast-paced, run-and-gun style shootout, only this time the Celtics failed to outscore their opponents. Ultimately Denver took the lead despite some solid play from Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris and some nice moves from the evergreen source of silver linings that is Jayson Tatum.
The third quarter finished with the Celtics down to the Nuggets 82-80, and after such a strong first half it was baffling to see the Celtics fall apart so much in the third. An extended rest for Kyrie Irving probably had a lot to do with the Celtics’ lack of offensive execution, but this team clearly needs additional scorers to fill the gaps while Irving is on the bench.
The start of the fourth didn’t see the Celtics’ fortunes improve considerably, as the Denver Nuggets increased their lead and continued to feed off the crowd. But some late-game magic from Kyrie allowed the Celtics to recapture the lead with just over 7 minutes left in the game.
Having blown a big lead already once this game, the Celtics needed to defend voraciously down the stretch. Unfortunately, Denver kept finding ways to score, keeping things far too close for comfort.
Bad communication on the offensive end led to some terrible turnovers in the final minutes of the game and gifted several extra opportunities to the home team. With just over a minute left the Nuggets trailed by two, and the Celtics seemed rattled.
A pivotal shot from Kyrie Irving was waved off due to a 24-second violation, and the Nuggets converted on the other end, tying up the score at 108-108 with less than a minute left on the clock.
A breakneck pass from Al Horford to Jaylen Brown (who was waiting expectantly at the three-point line) pushed the Celtics in front with just 33 seconds left on the clock. Both teams seemed determined if not desperate not to lose such a close contest.
With 17 seconds on the clock the Celtics held the ball and a one-point lead. A missed shot by Kyrie gave Denver one final opportunity to get the win. Will Barton ran the court and heaved a three-pointer but missed, and an attempt to convert the bungled basket into a game-winning alley-oop was waved off as after the buzzer. The Celtics escaped with the win 111-110.