It was just one game in January, but it felt like so much more.
Only time will tell whether the Celtics and Nuggets meet in the NBA Finals, but if Friday’s matchup is any indication, a series in June could be one for the ages.
Boston and Denver flaunted their firepower at TD Garden before the Nuggets escaped with a 102-100 win. Jayson Tatum had a chance in the final seconds but missed an off-balance fadeaway, sealing Boston’s fate.
Derrick White paced the Celtics with 24, Tatum added 22 and Kristaps Porzingis contributed 21. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic fueled the Nuggets with 35 and 34, respectively.
The Celtics are now 20-1 at home, after scoring just 39 points in the second half. There will be no 41-0 slate after all.
Porzingis came out firing and scored 15 of the Celtics’ first 20 points, but Jokic quickly responded en route to a 15-point quarter of his own. The Celtics threw Porzingis, Al Horford and Jrue Holiday his way, periodically doubled him and tried to flummox the big fella, but it didn’t matter what they did. Jokic showed why he’s the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Even so, the Celtics still built a 32-31 edge through one, shooting 55 percent from the floor, 50 percent from 3 and assisting on nine of their 11 baskets. Each team turned the ball over just once, as two juggernauts traded blows in front of a raucous crowd.
The Celtics didn’t dominate the non-Jokic minutes to start the second, but they took a 52-44 lead with 4:49 left with Jokic on the court. Tatum threw down a thunderous slam in transition, and the crowd took umbrage with the no-call and technical that followed after Tatum briefly hung on the rim.
JAYSON TATUM WOW— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 20, 2024
(But that tech ) pic.twitter.com/NkfTkMnXFA
Jaylen Brown glided in for two, Porzingis continued to wreak havoc in the paint and White found a rhythm. The Celtics consistently made the extra pass, turning down good shots for great ones and working as a unit.
Boston finished the half with 15 assists to just one turnover, taking a 61-55 lead into the break. Porzingis, Jokic and Murray all poured in 19, and all nine Celtics posted a positive plus-minus.
The Nuggets started the third on a 14-7 flurry to take a 69-68 edge, but White and Horford hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Celtics back in front. White looked for his shot and scored 13 in the quarter, earning a kiss on the head from Porzingis and “M-V-P” chants from the crowd.
He helped the Celtics take an 82-81 edge into the fourth. They still had just one turnover, yet they still led by just one.
Derrick White is electric pic.twitter.com/b4odzOri5f— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 20, 2024
After an even start to the fourth, Tatum and Brown both delivered inside to give Boston a 98-95 edge with 4:50 remaining. The Nuggets quickly responded with a 6-0 spurt to surge back front.
Tatum responded with a dunk, and had a chance to give the Celtics a lead with 22.1 remaining, but his layup rimmed out. Aaron Gordon hit a free throw, and Porzingis won the tip after a double lane violation.
Joe Mazzulla called a timeout with 13.4 remaining, then another with 4.9 left after nothing developed. Tatum had a chance, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on him, but he couldn’t deliver with the game on the line.