Some days it's just not your day. The Denver Nuggets came out of the gate sluggish and sloppy, amassing 20 turnovers against 23 assists, and their bench dug a hole at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth that could not be overcome as Denver lost 111-103 to the Boston Celtics. Avery Bradley matched his season-high with 27 to pace Boston's output.
There were bright spots for Denver: Kenneth Faried had 15 points and 15 rebounds, and Danilo Gallinari and Will Barton each had 23 points, but the team aspect was absent tonight. The starters lacked cohesion and couldn't put a truly sustained attack together on either side of the court, while the bench fell apart until Barton took it on himself to drive the fourth quarter attack and keep the Nuggets from being embarrassed.
The opening minutes were a brickfest with the two teams missing their first 9 combined shots. Jokic struggled early with the defensive pressure and even double-teams from the Celtics, netting just 3 points on the night to go with 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Gary Harris and Danilo Gallinari carried the scoring early for the Nuggets, but Jared Sullinger got good inside position on both Kenneth Faried and Nikola Jokic for offensive rebounds and points. The Nuggets struggled to make their inside shots and couldn't clear defensive rebounds, while Avery Bradley scored 13 points in the first 7 minutes of the game as Boston opened up a 19-11 lead. The Nuggets were 1 for 10 in the paint in the early going. Michael Malone brought Jusuf Nurkic in to better patrol the glass on both ends as the Nuggets closed it to 19-17, but Nurkic's rushed (and missed) shots kept the Nuggets trailing. Sloppy turnovers and lazy boxouts cost Denver as they finished the first down 29-21, ceding 8 offensive rebounds to the Celtics in the frame and offering up 7 turnovers.
Nurkic finally made a layup in the paint in the second quarter off the pick and roll, which is better for his game right now than backing down the opposition, and Barton's three brought the Nuggets within 3. Kelly Olynyk raised the lead back to 8 at 36-28 with a couple of quick buckets, though, and Boston's pressure kept creating turnovers and short-clock situations. Denver had 12 giveaways in the first 18 minutes of the game (against just 8 assists) as the Nuggets trailed 40-30. A Gallinari block and layup, a Mudiay-assisted Faried dunk and an awkward lefty finish by the Rooster cut the lead to single digits at 48-39. The Nuggets warmed up as the quarter drew to a close but Mudiay missed a three and a turnaround, and a late, questionable foul call on Harris put the Celtics up 10 at halftime, 55-45.
The Nuggets opened the third with a couple of free throws from Emmanuel Mudiay, then a block from Faried that led to a Mudiay layup, and finished a 6-0 run with a Mudiay-assisted Jokic layup to cut the lead to 4. That was as close as they would get, as a pair of threes from the Celtics put a halt to that. Jokic still couldn't slow Sullinger inside and neither could anyone else. The Celtics took a 69-55 lead on a transition that ended when Jokic came up briefly lame, favoring his hip. He returned to the game but would leave in the fourth after banging knees with another player (luckily the early word was that it's not serious). Barton nailed a jumper then blocked Crowder's shot and drove to the basket to cut it to 5 when Denver's offense faltered again. Once Malone went full-bench the lead ballooned for the Celtics as Isaiah Thomas scored 10 in the quarter. The Celtics closed on an 11-1 run - ending with a coast-to-coast 3-point play by the 7 foot Olynyk - that made it 86-71 heading into the fourth.
Olynyk opened the 4th quarter scoring with another three, and Turner threw in a buzzer-beating jumper with a defender on him to push it to 20. The bench finished imploding by allowing a transition dunk by Turner to get it to 22, giving up an 8-0 run to start the 4th. Barton did his best to keep the Nuggets hanging around with his 13 points in the quarter, making the right passes (to players like Foye who missed) or hitting threes, but the Nuggets could not get stops. Foye's layup - his first points of the game - cut the lead to 14 with just over six minutes to go with the Nuggets on a 14-6 run. Faried then announced himself in the final period in a big way. He got a steal and a slam to make it a 12 point game. ANOTHER steal and a put-back dunk by Faried took the Nuggets to within 10 before Turner's bucket halted the momentum. Gallinari didn't come back until the 5 minute mark but earned a 3-point play with Barton's help to get it to 102-92, but the Nuggets could simply not stop the Celtics. From there it was just grinding to the end as the Nuggets tried not to get injured. JJ Hickson made an appearance in the last minute, which is Denver's version of waving the while flag while mainlining tequila. The Nuggets made free throws late to close it to single digits, but Boston won handily in a game that was not as close as the 111-103 score would indicate.
Jokic still struggles with the physicality of NBA bruisers. He was pushed around by Oklahoma City's big men in the paint, and it happened here again. Sullinger is a solid wall of a man, and Jokic could not figure out how to attack him in the paint. Nurkic backed him down with relative ease - and in fact got the positioning he wanted time and time again - but just rushed all his shots. The team needs to get Nurkic into more pick-and-roll situations and fewer dribble isolations, and they need to encourage Jokic to use his range and passing if he can't bully his way into the paint yet. The Nuggets starters as a whole handled the physicality of the game better in the second half, but by then it was too late.
Harris and Mudiay need to work on protecting the ball. Mudiay got stripped easily on several occasions, and Harris drove through traffic in ways that you cannot do if you want to prevent turnovers. There were some uncalled reaching fouls, but knowing that is happening the Nuggets needed to take better care of the ball. To his credit, Mudiay did a better job after halftime (as he usually does) with only one turnover in the second half compared to four in the first, and both kids played decently on offense (nobody slowed Bradley on defense). But hours in the gym doing nothing but ball-handling exercises is going to be part of their offseason plans. Everyone on the team was careless, though. They all need to do a better job of limiting turnovers, because the Nuggets and Celtics shot the same ~43% from the field tonight. The turnovers did Denver in.
Our full bench is just a YMCA-pick-up-game style mess. The old men think they know what they're doing, the kids are rushing everything and there's always that one guy who thinks he's Jordan every game but doesn't feel like playing a lick of defense. The team - mostly bench players - gave up a 19-1 run between the third and fourth quarters and any idea of coming back in this game was shattered. Mike Miller was a cardboard cutout with windmill arms out there. Randy Foye had 7 points on 2-of-9 shooting, but that cannot possibly provide an accurate picture of his chucking and iso-ball offensive style as the backup point guard. Until Barton wrested control of the ball away from Foye and did his all-out attack thing the bench had rolled over and died on both ends of the court The Nuggets don't necessarily lack bench talent (although with Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler out they're down a chunk of it). The lack of a bench point guard is a big deal, and no number of impassioned speeches by Foye - who gave one during a timeout when the Nuggets were struggling in the first half - can make up for his inability to make the necessary shots or run the offense.
Malone needs to understand that going full-bench is a recipe for disaster and alter his hockey-line substitution patterns until he has a better bench point guard. If he was trying to save players for tomorrow's game against the WIzards (other than Mudiay, who sat much of the second half) it certainly didn't help in this one. Better luck next time.