When a team beats your favorite squad by 16, at various times holding a 20-point lead, you remember. And they sure as hell do. When that team is the Denver Nuggets, a sub-.500 turnover machine who until recently bequeathed Emmanuel goddamn Mudiay the keys to its offense, your head becomes like that of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. As little bearing as it has on the season and is attributable to an incongruous matchup (much like the Milwaukee Bucks always seeming to confound the Warriors), it was frustrating to see the Celtics make mistakes that, if made in the postseason, might be fatal.
THE GAME FLOW
OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD IT’S NOT GONNA HAPPEN AGAIN TONIGHT IS IT SON OF A–
Excuse that PTSD flashback to this season’s first game against the Nugs, whose continued appeal to NBA hipsters eludes me despite Nikola Jokic’s mastery of old- and new-school center skills. (I find the Nugs’ overall style of play aesthetically gauche. Whatever.) That game sucked. The opening minutes of this contest made me remember its grossness. (Mudiay scored like 24 points in a quarter.)
Alongside Jokic’s abilities, the Nuggets have developed an undeniably potent offense, the impact of which is often countered by defensive ineptitude. So I wasn’t that worried when they developed a lead…but I got worried when it persisted into the second quarter. Part of it was just Boston missing open shots. But…a team that just punched the Warriors in the mouth and held them to 86 points not stopping Wilson Chandler? That’s a problem. They couldn’t even lock up Denver’s ragtag bench, all of whom except Roy Hibbert contributed.
Denver, despite their largely shit defense, protects the rim respectably, so Boston spacing the floor and making room for Isaiah to drive can’t be the bread and butter. And if outside shots aren’t falling for the Celtics–which they weren’t until late in Q2–they’ll be in serious trouble against the Nuggets’ firepower. Which is what happened. Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart were the only Boston players in double figures at the half, and only Bradley did so shooting above 45 percent. Halftime put a merciful end to two frames of clueless, herky-jerk defense and hapless shooting with Denver up 65-54.
Starting Q3 with a smaller lineup, subbing Marcus Smart for Amir Johnson, gave the Cs some spark. Isaiah Thomas, who’d had only 7 in the first half, baited Jokic and others into dumb fouls and quickly doubled his scoring, and Smart went into Instigator Mode. He scrapped with Chandler and drove both the Denver SG and coach Mike Malone into techs (the latter spewing enough vitriol from the sideline to almost get a second T and the boot). Bradley continued his torrid shooting. Unfortunately, while Denver’s defensive cracks began to show, their offense remained at full speed and got second-chance points the Celtics never got on their end. They also benefited from more than a few questionable foul calls–Olynyk paying for a clean-looking block on Jokic; Danilo Legs-Of-Glass Gallinari flopping into an Al Horford screen; Isaiah getting tickytack calls, etc. Even with some unexpected Jaylen Brown treys, the Cs entered the 4th down 80-94.
The first real signs of defensive muscle on Boston’s part showed in the 4th. Smart, Horford, Brown and even Gerald Green showed enough flex to get stops and steal their way into second chances and made buckets. (Marcus smacking the shit out of Juancho Hernangomez was a particularly satisfying bully-ball moment.) Frustratingly, though, the second Boston made one Denver player go cold, another bench rando stepped up to contribute, whether it was Will Barton or Mason Plumlee. In the final five minutes, the Nuggets had more than a few misses and miscues, but the Celtics couldn’t score and the deficit was simply too great. Stevens pulled the starters and used garbage time to give Brown, Jordan Mickey and Terry Rozier some run, and that was that, with the Cs falling 99-119.
For every dumb foul Boston made on their own, they got another bullshit call. The most egregious examples are listed above, but chrissakes, one of the ugly fouls Marcus made didn’t get called! No consistency I blame the Cs for every other aspect of this loss. It’s as if they blew two games’ worth of D to stop the Dubs on Wednesday and had none for tonight.
A highlight play of Jaylen’s solid 14 points off the bench, scraping offense out of grit and the seat of his short shorts.
Despite Isaiah having 21, tonight didn’t have a particular highlight of his, so instead I’ll take a cue from Johnny Mercer and ac-cen-tu-ate the positive with this showcase of excellent ball movement and Bradley’s return to form:
Avery Bradley: 16 points highlighted by 50 percent on the 3-ball, along with 3 steals and 2 each of boards and dimes. A bright spot in a shite loss.
Nikola Jokic: This dude is really something. 21-10-7-4-1 – a line so good and backed up by 80 percent shooting and team support that his 7 turnovers didn’t matter.