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Would the Celtics have had a chance against the Nuggets in the NBA Finals?

In a world of “What ifs,” this one may not be one Celtics fans want to think about.

Boston Celtics v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

After being bested in seven games by the Heat, it may be natural for some Celtics fans to root against them, but for Miami’s shooting to take such a massive dip in The Finals — in the gentlemen’s sweep, they made just 33.8% of their threes after making 43.4% against Boston — leads to wondering minds. “What ifs” begin to trickle into the heads of Bostonians wishing their team had contended for a championship.

But the more important question to ask is, would the Celtics have been able to beat the Nuggets?

Historically speaking, yes.

The Celtics have gone 5-1 against the Nuggets over the last three seasons, including a 1-1 record this past year. Boston got the best of Denver in November, while the Nuggets flipped the script on New Year’s Day.

Boston Celtics v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Boston has solid pieces to throw at Finals MVP Nikola Jokic. Grant Williams earned the nickname “Batman” for his efforts in slowing down “The Joker,” and Al Horford is one of the better post defenders in the league when it comes to guarding big-bodied centers.

The two games this season were largely decided by three-point shooting.

Read: If the Celtics shot the ball well from deep, they won. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

In their win over Denver on November 11, the Celtics shot 43.2% from distance, and although the Nuggets were just as hot, it didn’t matter. Boston slowed down Jamal Murray, and their three-point shooting carried them to a win in which they dropped 131 points.

However, in their loss on January 1, the Celtics shot just 27.3% from three-point land, while the Nuggets were scorching hot from all over the place.

It was one of nineteen total games Boston shot below 30% from deep, four of which were in the postseason (and all of those were against Miami). In those games, the Celtics went just 7-12.

So, based on history, the Celtics would have absolutely had a chance against the Nuggets. They’ve played Denver well, and if their three-point shooting was there, they were golden.

But realistically? Probably not.

Jokic had one of the most impressive playoff runs in NBA history. That might sound dramatic, but he recently became the first player ever to record 500 points, 250 rebounds, and 150 assists in a single postseason.

That’s obscene.

No one has been able to crack the code of the Jokic-Murray two-man game, and considering Boston was struggling to defend a Miami offense that has failed to put up 100 points in five of their last eight games, Denver would have had them running in circles.

Denver Nuggets v Boston Celtics Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Murray’s shot creation combined with Jokic’s mastery in the post would have given Joe Mazzulla and the Celtics brain cramps, while Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drained the same threes that Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent were making.

And if you think the Celtics were doing a terrible job defending against Duncan Robinson’s back cuts with Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler passing him the ball, imagine the horror of having to watch Boston stop Aaron Gordon, Christian Braun, Jeff Green or Bruce Brown running to the rim with Jokic’s vision setting them up for easy lobs.

As far as the Nuggets’ defense, it’s been solid, but the issue would have been self-inflicted wounds, as it has been since the All-Star break.

The whole part about “if their three-point shooting was there, they were golden” is very true, but unfortunately, it’s exactly why Boston lost in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Defensively, they left a lot to be desired, but in the year 2023, the Celtics lost a series in which their opponent scored 111 points or fewer in five of the seven games, including four games below 105.

Boston, a team that averaged 117.9 points and shot 37.7% from deep in the regular season, put up just 105.3 points per game and shot 30.3% from deep in the Eastern Conference Finals. They shot below 30% in four of the seven games, going 1-3, with the only victory coming by way of a miracle Derrick White buzzer-beater.

The Celtics’ inconsistencies and inability to win when the three-point shot isn’t falling is the polar opposite of what the Nuggets have been all about in their first banner year.

Denver has been defined by unrelenting consistency.

The Nuggets have scored at least 100 points in all but two of their 20 games, dropping at least 108 in all but two. They have held their opponent to fewer than 100 points six times and have only allowed 115 or more thrice.

As far as their three-point shooting, the Nuggets have only shot worse than 30% from deep in four games, and they won all four including last night’s Game 5 when they hit just 5-of-28 from behind the arc. They’ve only shot worse than 44% from the field twice, and once again, they won both of those games.

And they’ve only had one game with more than 15 turnovers. (Yup, they won that one, too.)

Jokic has only failed to crack the 20-point mark in a single game this postseason, and that was the very first game of the playoffs in which the Nuggets beat the Minnesota Timberwolves by 29 points.

He shot 50% or better from the field in 14 of the 20 games, grabbed 10 or more boards in 17 of the 20, and had 10 or more assists in 11 of the 20.

Even Murray, a tough-shot-maker who is often tasked with creating for himself, shot below 43% from the field just five times in this playoff run.

The Nuggets have lost just four games in the playoffs this year, and it’s because no matter what happens, they simply stick to the game plan. They run through Jokic and Murray, let Gordon get some drives in, don’t turn the ball over, and wear their opponents down.

It’s a relentless, repetitive approach, and it’s why they’re as amazing as they are. The Nuggets are zombies. Basketball zombies.

Meanwhile, the Celtics struggled for the exact same reason–because they were incapable of utilizing the same approach effectively. They turned the ball over, they played with varying levels of effort on defense, their three-point shot wasn’t there, and their stars had far too many rough showings.

So, would the Celtics have had a chance? Of course.

But based on all of the evidence shown, it wouldn’t have been a good one.

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