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Preview: Denver Nuggets at Boston Celtics Game #71

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Isaiah Thomas and the Denver Nuggets come to TD Garden to take on the Celtics for the 2nd and final meeting this season.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics welcome old friend Isaiah Thomas and the Denver Nuggets to the TD Garden for the second and final meeting between these two teams this season. The Nuggets won the first meeting 115-107 way back on November 5. The Celtics led by 18 in the first quarter and then as has been their mo for much of this season, they let the Nuggets come back and win the game.

There was a bit of controversy in that game also. The Nuggets were comfortably ahead at the end of the game and the Nuggets point guard, Jamal Murray, had 48 points. Instead of dribbling out the clock, as would have been the right thing to do, he threw up a last second 3, trying to get to 50 points. Kyrie was so mad about it, he grabbed the ball and threw it way up into the stands, for which he got fined.

That game was way back at the beginning of the season but, I can imagine that Kyrie and the rest of the Celtics haven’t forgotten that slight by Murray. This is the first game of a 4 game road trip by the Nuggets. The Celtics are wrapping up a 3 game home stand before heading out to play Philadelphia and Charlotte on the road.

Former Celtic Isaiah Thomas is also making his return to the TD Garden. His fortunes have not been good since he was traded for Kyrie 18 months ago. He had hip surgery and finally made it back to the court for 9 games with the Nuggets before being out of the rotation for the last 3 games. Hopefully he will get some playing time in this game so that Celtics fans can give him some love.

The Celtics are still in 5th place in the East, but they have made up a little ground and are just 1 game behind Indiana, who lost to these Nuggets on Saturday, and 2 games behind Philadelphia, who beat the Bucks on Sunday. The Celtics and Sixers square off in Philadelphia on Wednesday. The Celtics are 26-10 at home and have won their last 2 games. They are 6-4 in their last 10 games and 14-14 against Western Conference teams.

The Nuggets are 2nd in the West, just 1 game behind the Warriors and 3.5 games ahead of Houston. The Nuggets have one of the better home court advantages and have lost just 6 games at home but are 16-16 on the road. They are 6-4 in their last 10 games and have won their last 3 games. They are 16-8 against Eastern Conference teams.

The Celtics have had trouble staying healthy this season. They were finally healthy on their West Coast trip only to have several players come down with the flu. Robert Williams and Guerschon Yabusele are both questionable with an illness (flu) for this game. Al Horford bumped his knee in the Hawks game and had some soreness, but is probable for this game.

Gordon Hayward took a hard hit when he ran into a pick set by John Collins in the Hawks game and left the game with was was termed a sprained neck. He has been put into the concussion protocol and is doubtful for this game. The Nuggets have had their own share of injuries this season but are mostly healthy now with just Michael Porter, Jr out with a back injury.

Probable Celtics Starters

Celtics Reserves
Terry Rozier
Jaylen Brown
Aron Baynes
Semi Ojeleye
Brad Wanamaker
Daniel Theis

Injuries
Gordon Hayward (concussion) doubtful
Al Horford (knee) probable)
Robert Williams III (illness) questionable
Guerschon Yabusele (illness) questionable

Two-Way Players
RJ Hunter
P. J. Dozier

Head Coach
Brad Stevens

Probable Nuggets Starters

Nuggets Reserves
Malik Beasley
Torrey Craig
Juancho Hernangomez
Tyler Lydon
Trey Lyles
Monte Morris
Mason Plumlee
Isaiah Thomas
Jarred Banderbilt

Injuries
Michael Porter, Jr (back) out

Two Way Players
Brandon Goodwin
Thomas Welsh

Head Coach
Michael Malone

Key Matchups

Al Horford vs Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic is leading the Nuggets in points (20.3 ppg), rebounds (10.7 rpg) and assists (7.6 apg). He is shooting 50.7% from the field and 32% from beyond the arc. It goes without saying that the Celtics need to somehow slow him down. Al is probable to play in this one and hopefully will be 100%. We may also see Aron Baynes on Jokic to give Horford a break also.

Kyrie Irving vs Jamal Murray
As we saw in the last game between these two, Murray is capable of having a big game. He is averaging 18.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game. He shoots 43% from the field and 37.5% from beyond the arc. Kyrie will likely remember that disrespectful 3 Murray took at the end of the Celtics loss and will be looking for some pay back in this one. We may see Marcus Smart on Murray and Kyrie covering Harris if Murray looks like he is going to have a repeat of their last meeting.

Honorable Mention
Marcus Morris vs Paul Millsap
Millsap can take over a game if he isn’t defended well. He is averaging 13.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists. He shoots 49.8% from the field and 37.5% on threes. Marcus will need to stay with him inside and out to keep him off the boards and to limit his scoring.

Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense is the key to every game but especially this one. The Celtics are still 5th with a defensive rating of 106.3 but they have let their defense slip in several games recently and need to get back to making defense a priority and putting in more work on that side of the court. The Nuggets have a defensive rating of 108.0 (11th). The Celtics average 112.8 points per game while the Nuggets average 112.0 points per game. They both shoot 47% from the field and 36% from three. With their offenses so close it will come down to which team can stop the other team from scoring.

Rebound - The Nuggets average almost 2 rebounds more per game than the Celtics (46.6 to 44.7). They also average 12.1 offensive rebounds to just 9.9 for the Celtics. They are 2nd in the league with 15.5 second chance points per game. Rebounding takes effort and the Celtics have to work harder to grab rebounds to limit the Nuggets second chance points and fast breaks. The Celtics can’t allow the Nuggets to outwork them on the boards.

Effort and Energy - The Celtics must be the more aggressive team. They have to fight for loose balls, defend aggressively, be aggressive in driving to the basket, and just play harder than the Nuggets for the entire game. When the Celtics lose, it is mostly because they lack energy and effort and allow teams to outwork them. They have to be the team that wants it more and plays like it.

Move the Ball - The Celtics play very well when they move the ball and find the open man. When the ball sticks and players try to do too much, take quick shots, and dribble too much, the Celtics struggle. They have to move the ball and look for the best shot and not force shots and not take quick shots.

Play Hard 48 Minutes - The Celtics play hard and get a big lead like they did against the Nuggets in the first meeting and against the Hawks but then they let their foot off the gas and stop moving the ball and stop doing what gave them the big lead. Sometimes they come out sluggish and let teams get a big lead on them and then have to fight for the rest of the game trying to catch up. Denver is first in the league in 4th quarter defense, points allowed and opponents field goal percentage. If the Celtics don’t play hard for the whole game, they could find themselves in trouble.

X-Factors
Home Game - The Celtics are playing at home where they should get a boost from their fans. Celtics fans should remember that early loss to this team and be loud enough to rattle the Nuggets’ focus. Also, the Nuggets are dominant in their arena but just .500 on the road. The Celtics need to take advantage of their home court.

Health (or lack of it) - The Nuggets are healthy but the Celtics could be without key players. Gordon Hayward is doubtful with a concussion and he has been key in several games recently. Al Horford is probable, but if his knee soreness flares up, that would be a big blow to the Celtics ability to slow down Jokic. But then again, the Celtics have been at their best at times when they are short handed.