The last time the Celtics faced MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic and his Nuggets, Marcus Smart seemed to predict where he’d look to pass. He jumped in front of passing lanes, double teams and secondary rotations irritated him as he turned the ball over nine times.
Boston couldn’t pull that off on Sunday, but Jokic’s change in approach benefited the Celtics even more. He attack edtheir defense head-on midway through the first quarter, exactly what they wanted, scoring 12 points in just over five minutes to give the Nuggets an early lead.
Then, Daniel Theis scored seven straight points off the bench, Boston’s second unit established itself, and the lead kept ballooning from there. The Celtics led by 25 after a 24-2 run into halftime keyed by three triples from Jayson Tatum and Payton Pritchard each, a run so devastating that Michael Malone benched Denver’s starters to begin the second half. Boston went on to win its third straight and its 21st game over the team’s last 25, 124-101.
One of Ime Udoka’s goals on this west coast trip involved establishing a second unit, and the massive on-off differentials around Jokic’s minutes provided a good chance to do so. White scored early at the basket amid his ongoing slump, while Theis hit a three and finished an alley-oop from White. Tatum hit an open pull-up three one play later and put the Celtics ahead 33-27 into the second quarter.
The next frame featured the best basketball the Celtics have played all season. After a sloppy few minutes of back-and-forth scores between Grant Williams and Demarcus Cousins, along with a technical foul on a frustrated Tatum, Boston’s offense erupted following as its defense limited Denver to 6-of-27 (22%) shooting.
Bigs found wings, Robert Williams III hitting White inside on a cut and Grant Williams grabbed an offensive board to find Payton Pritchard for a second straight three. Pritchard found Williams for a short jumper in the lane. Jokic got stalled inside on four straight possessions while Tatum and Pritchard traded threes to boost the Celtics ahead by 20.
The run happened in an instant, quintessential Udoka basketball, and kept flowing into insanity, as Celtics broadcaster Sean Grande described it. Tatum hit two more threes back-to-back, then Pritchard ran out following a Williams III block inside and spotted-up to hit eight threes on eight tries across Boston’s last eight halves at the time. The Celtics led by 25 entering halftime, Tatum nearly burying a 40-foot heave at the buzzer on top of it all.
Jokic didn’t appear on the floor when the teams returned. All five Nuggets starters sat on the bench as the ball entered play, sitting for the first three minutes while Bones Hyland pushed a 7-2 run and quickly forced an Udoka timeout to start the third. Malone didn’t relent, Austin Rivers and Cousins would need to figure it out, and did spark some offense, but Smart and Boston’s offense righted the ship, shooting over 60% well into the third.
Brown threw down a vicious dunk in the lane after Jokic checked back in and hit a three from Tatum on the next trip down. Tatum hit a floater in the lane, then initiated one of the most beautiful sequences from Boston’s all season with a skip pass to Horford. Horford attacked the Denver closeout, fired a pass to Smart, then repositioned himself in the left corner for Smart to swing a pass around his back to set Horford up for three.
Despite a late push from Jokic, Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green after Denver’s starting five reunited, Brown sent the Celtics to the fourth ahead by 23. The Nuggets weren’t done swinging, hitting four straight shots between quarters fresh off the break Malone handed them. Will Barton hit a the buzzer, before Gordon, Green and Monte Morris finished emphatically inside to cut the lead to 18.
Udoka went back to his starters too, and received an exclamation point from Tatum, who once again combined for 60 points with Brown. Brown hit 30 early in the frame on a cutting finish from Smart. Tatum hit a three and dunked uncontested one play later, after the Ball Arena tried to temper the massive Celtics fan presence in the building with visuals of Tom Brady in a Buccaneers uniform.
It didn’t work, Williams hit a three, Tatum followed and Boston held onto its 20-point lead for almost the entire second half, now building that advantage in each of the first three games on the team’s west coast road trip.
They’ll conclude it in Oklahoma City on Monday, facing the Thunder, who lost their ninth straight game to Orlando at 8 p.m. EST.