Grant Williams stepped onto the Nikola Jokic assignment midway through the fourth quarter as the Nuggets dominated Jokic’s minutes with back line cutting, multiple pick-and-roll combinations and catch-and-shoot looks. When Jokic saw Grant, though, he went to attack him straight-on in what Brad Stevens considered the adjustment that’s made Jokic the MVP frontrunner this season.
Williams stood hard, staying in front of Jokic with his hands up for a first time on Jokic’s first attempt that Jayson Tatum rode to the other basket for an open layup. Robert Williams III stepped in on the next take and helped Grant secure the stop, as Jokic stood underneath the basket eyeing the officials, already having picked up a technical, as Grant ran the other way for two and a 14-point lead. Just eight minutes earlier, Boston trailed by 14 in a game they went on to win 105-97 behind a 31-3 run that ended with Michael Malone benching Jokic with just under five minutes remaining and one rebound shot of a double-double. Boston swept the season series over Denver with a pair of double-digit victories.
The Celtics flew from Boston to Denver in what Brad Stevens described as a long flight where Jayson Tatum felt unwell hours after the best scoring night of his career. He slept through the Sunday’s morning walkthrough and felt good ahead of game time. The same went for Jaylen Brown, who felt general soreness after Friday’s victory. Both took the court. Neither looked right from three, as Marcus Smart delivered the lone makes during Boston’s 2-of-17 start from three at the former Pepsi Center.
Boston successfully narrowed an early 14-point deficit following a barrage of Michael Porter and Aaron Gordon shots and cuts, respectively. Tatum charged in transition for consecutive free throw trips, roared on other plays where contact didn’t get called inside, as the Celtics will their way to 11 free throw attempts before the Nuggets attempted one.
While Kemba Walker, Brown and Tatum began 0-for-9 from three, Tatum scored 11 points and only turned the ball over once on a skip pass to the corner. Walker and Smart dished five assists on Boston’s first 15 makes, including a dart by the latter through Denver’s front court from the top of the three-point arc. Brown, starting 1-of-6, blocked two shots.
That defensive effort involved Tristan Thompson taking bruising bumps from Nikola Jokic in the lane and attempting to stay home on Porter and Denver’s shooters along the perimeter and baseline. Boston held Porter to a 1-of-7 start from three, but he walked to the rim on an early dive off Jokic. Robert Williams missed a roll off Kemba that flew to him running the other way for a hard open dunk and a 16-5 lead.
Romeo Langford hit an off-balance cut through JaMychal Green and Thompson smashed into the restricted zone for a pair of scoring plays as Denver’s bench stalled into a 2-of-7 stretch to close the opening quarter. Thompson leaped into the lane to help Payton Pritchard after Paul Millsap switched onto him and force a miss, but Boston’s lack of a three ball rendered the stretch a one-point loss.
Tatum stormed into the second with three Tatum free throw attempts and a rolling feed to Williams III. Rob grabbed an offensive rebound and led Brown to the rim for two before blocking Green twice on one play inside to prevent a Nuggets third-chance basket. Tatum followed with a pair of and-ones in transition, then in the half court, but picked up a technical foul asking for another trip after Facundo Campazzo blocked him inside.
Jokic and Campazzo got the Denver lead back to 12 with shots inside and out midway through the second, but Jokic picked up a T of his own complaining that Smart initiated contact inside to his face. Then he missed one of his free throws on the other end, allowing Boston to ride 4-of-6 shooting and a pair of Brown free throws into halftime to pull back within 51-45 into the third. Gordon, a Celtics trade deadline target who Denver ultimately acquired, started 2-of-5 from the field
Jokic redeemed himself out of halftime with a spinning fadeaway shot over Williams III. He rolled to the basket off Will Barton for a three-point pay and hit another floater on the drive playing roll man to extend the lead back to 10. As a passer, the MVP candidate drilled Porter for a short-roll layup and Campazzo with Walker rotating late and fouling.
Brown got going to keep the Celtics in it despite Jokic picking apart him and Tatum on defense. He hit a three around a Rob screen then found him for a dunk to open the quarter. He later tore to the rim baseline to grab a missed Tatum three to get him another wide open try that Tatum buried. Brown added a two-point and three-point jumper that Kemba found him on, then drove to the rim around Williams’ handoff for two late in the quarter
Walker and Brown led a 9-0 run into the third quarter after trailing by three, Brown fading from the rim and making a high hook off glass and Walker stripping Barton then barreling through Monte Morris’ foul to score on the other end. Brown’s jumper and another hard Walker drive to open the fourth quarter pulled Boston within 79-78 in 180 seconds. The Celtics outscored Millsap’s bench unit with Jokic off the floor by 19 points.
Langford handed Boston its first lead of the game driving into Green for free throws. Tatum hit 3-of-4 midway through the quarter to build extend it to 90-82, while Boston’s defense held Denver to three points in the first six minutes. Williams III stepped into the lane to stop Denver’s cutters twice in a row, then Grant stood in front of Jokic on consecutive post-up attempts and stopped consecutive shots at the rim. Tatum rode the first miss to the rim on the other end, then Grant raced for two as Jokic stood at the other net staring at the official on the baseline. Boston capped a 31-3 run as the game turned into a dunk contest between Williams III and Brown with Jokic on the bench
At the peak, Boston outscored Denver’s bench by 30 during PJ Dozier’s 16 minutes and in a game where Denver won Jokic’s minutes by nine, the Celtics won by 18.