The Nuggets had to know the game slipped from their hands when Nikola Jokic needed to awkwardly flip a pass over the defense to the perimeter while trying to isolate Enes Kanter. Brad Stevens has trusted Kanter in since his return for offensive bursts, like the trio of assists he dished against Denver through a crucial stretch late in the third.
In the final two minutes, Brown hit a pair of free throws and flew through a crowd in transition to smash a massive dunk. Jayson Tatum set himself at the buzzer, splashing a three from the right wing. Boston’s two young stars reached 20 points each to cap the third, putting the the west’s two seed away with an 85-64 lead. Boston went on to win 108-95, avenging a near-comeback on Nov. 22 in Denver.
Jaylen Brown, who 8-for-15 with 21 points, reversed the Celtics’ recent trend of empty first quarters. Three minutes into the game, he rebounded from a miss and drilled three consecutive threes to propel Boston to a 14-6 lead.
Jokic chipped away on the other side, putting a rebound back as loose balls caromed off the bottom of the basket repeatedly as Denver asserted its size. He later tipped in his own miss and hit a turnaround jumper. Denver hit six shots around the rim for 13 of Denver’s 26 points in the first, in spite of an 0-for-5 start from Jamal Murray.
Enes Kanter entered the game with six straight points on a put back, free throws and post hook. Mason Plumlee slashed inside for a dunk, then Jerami Grant soared to the bucket for a hanging layup through Kanter’s foul. The free throw pulled Denver within seven, before Grant drove again and kicked out to Willy Hernangomez for Denver’s only three of the frame. His put-back to end the first made it a 33-26 game entering the second.
Jayson Tatum stepped back into two straight three-point makes, then ducked into the post for a hook layup that secured Boston’s largest lead at 13. His run extended the Celtics’ room for error, but couldn’t hold Jokic out of the interior. He reached 14 points before the end of the second with two layups, while Will Barton and Murray’s driving makes after each pulled the Nuggets back within eight with 2:30 remaining in the half. Jokic finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
They closed the half on an 8-2 run, but nearly stretched it even further with a picture perfect pass from Jokic to Gary Harris on the left wing that he missed. Jokic himself got an open look above the arc before the buzzer, but it hit back rim with the score at 53-45.
Boston responded to Denver’s interior pressure better in the third. After Walker’s driving reverse make and Daniel Theis’ kick-out to Tatum for another three, Theis and Walker stuffed Millsap inside on separate possessions. Walker blocked two shots in the game. Smart rotated to stuff Hernangomez three minutes later, sending Brown in transition to take a 69-57 lead.
Late in the frame, Smart hit a leaning jumper and three that Jokic and Murray matched with jumpers. Kanter fronted Jokic successfully in isolation, forcing an eventual shot clock violation, then Brown flew for a crushing dunk in transition and scored six points in the final three minutes of the third. Tatum capped the stretch with his three at the buzzer, shutting Denver out of any comeback chance in the fourth.
Tatum scored 26 points on 10-for-19 shooting, the bench contributed 26 points and Grant Williams nearly flushed his first NBA three in the closing minutes of the game. The Celtics host the Cavaliers on Monday winners of five of their last six.