The second matchup of the season between the Boston Celtics and the Denver Nuggets went much the same way the first one did, with Denver taking a win in a close game, 115-109. Nikola Jokic had 32 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists as he controlled the attack late with both passing and scoring. Aaron Gordon had 16 points on some spectacular dunk finishes to go with 9 rebounds, and Jamal Murray added 19 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists as the Nuggets stayed in control of the game most of the way. The bench played with great energy, and even 41 points and 14 rebounds from Jaylen Brown couldn’t overcome the home team in this one. This would be a really fun Finals matchup and both teams look ready to continue this fight in the playoffs if it comes to that.

Game Recap

Michael Porter Jr. opened the scoring with a layup off a feed from Aaron Gordon. The Celtics snagged a couple of rebounds and Jayson Tatum finally buried a three. Jamal Murray’s turnover turned into a Derrick White layup, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope buried a midrange jumper. Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holidy made easy shots but Jokic has an assist to AG and then exchanged dunks with Jaylen Brown. Brown made a shot and got a tech for waving off official Tony Brothers. Murray finished off a drive inside that Brown answered over AG for a 15-11 Boston lead early. Porter swished a Jokic-assisted three, and both teams made free throws to tie it at 16. Tatum made a two and Kristaps hit a layup, then Derrick While blocked a Reggie Jackson shot. Jackson finished his next drive off a Jokic screen, but MPJ couldn’t match Tatum’s three and Jackson missed another layup. Peyton Watson hit his first shoot off a Jokic pass, then got a steal and assisted Justin Holiday’s finish. Jokic assisted Christian Braun’s basket at the bucket, then answered a Tillman paint bucket with one of his own. With the quarter expiring, Jamal Murray hit a three running to his right and Denver finished up 30-28.

Jaylen Brown hit a pullup, matched by Braun’s free throws going the other way. Zeke Nnaji forced a turnover and also got free throws, then Murray made another jumper. The Celtics rebounded hard on offense and Brown finished off a carom, but Jamal’s finish off the glass over Tillman made it 40-33 Denver. Brown and Watson exchanged buckets, but Brown stayed hot with another 3 and all 10 of Boston’s second quarter points at that moment. Braun made a bucket, White scored over Watson, and both teams missed a couple threes before Jokic made a putback and finished a traditional 3-point play for a 47-41 Denver lead. Jokic made another layup, Porzingis answered with an oop finish and AG blew two finishes through contact as Denver couldn’t extend its lead. Jokic got a steal and made two from the free throw line. Murray took an offensive foul from Tatum, but Boston finished back-to-back buckets at the rim to cut the lead to 51-50. Jokic finished in the paint, MPJ dunked a transition finish from Murray, and Brown – with his 22nd first half point – was matched by the beautiful reverse jam from Gordon. Denver went into the half up 62-54 thanks to a great Justin Holiday block and Jokic bank shot at the buzzer.

Porzingis hit back-to-back threes to start the second half, forcing an immediate Denver timeout. The Nuggets missed a couple of shots and Brown tied the game at 62 before Jokic retook the lead on a layup. KCP’s pass off a deep shot fake bounced off Jokic’s back and led to Celtics points, but Jokic scored again off a Murray assist. KCP missed another three to make Denver 2-for-12 at that point, then turned the ball over but got a steal and a finish to put Denver back up a bucket. Tatum finished a drive but AG answered with a left-handed dunk and MPJ laid it in for a 72-68 lead. Tatum missed a layup while AG finished his, but Porzingis made another 3. Jokic scored back over Kristaps, and a KCP steal led to Jamal Murray free throws and a 7 point advantage. Denver challenged a turnover and got it, and KCP buried a jumper off a screen from Jokic. Porzingis blocked an MPJ dunk and Brown hit a jumper going the other way but the lead stayed 7 for a while. Jackson and Brown exchanged buckets, Watson made a nice 16-foot jumper, then hit an answering 3 to match Boston’s while KCP’s three on this last minute shot put Denver up 90-80 going into the 4th.

Jamal Murray hit a beautiful one-handed reverse dunk to start the 4th, while Tatum hit a finish under the bucket (on a play where he stepped out of bounds but it wasn’t called). Nnaji finished on one end, Watson swatted Tatum’s shot out of bounds on the other end, and Murray’s running shot made it 96-85 Denver. Brown hit a three, Holiday made an easy transition bucket, and Boston cut the deficit to 6. Jokic came back in the game and hit a pair of free throws, and then Watson turned a near-turnover into a beautiful dunk to put Denver up 101-91. Watson left to an ovation from the crowd after a block leaping over Jokic, but Porzingis hit a shot and then Murray’s turnover turned into an AG oop somehow and Denver’s lead jumped back to 10. Jokic hit AG on the back-cut for the dunk, then got a tech from Brothers after he was mugged with no call. Jokic and Holiday exchanged buckets to keep the lead at 7 following 3 more points from Brown who was terrific from the field. Murray missed an open jumper, Porzingis did not, and KCP missed a three. Jokic missed a bank shot but AG hit a one handed jam putback that felt like an early dagger. Murray missed an early clock three though while Holiday made his own three and cut the lead to 109-106. Jokic forced Kristaps under the bucket for an easy paint bucket but Jrue hit another 3 for Boston to cut it to 2. Nikola had his fingerprints all over the finish though with a hook pass for an oop dunk to Aaron Gordon and the Nuggets finished off a tight win over Boston, 115-109.

Final Thoughts

Playoff previews mean clutch finishes, and Denver does those better than anyone. The Nuggets make some uncharacteristic mistakes down the stretch tonight but still made those daggers when they needed them, with Nikola Jokic directing the action. The Celtics couldn’t get enough stops to go with Brown’s offense late, and Jayson Tatum’s mediocre night as well as Boston’s inability to get clutch threes or make free throws showed the weakness in their game: consistency. Maybe it’s coincidence that two of Boston’s very few offensively inefficient nights both happened against Denver, or maybe that’s a function of Denver’s length and execution bothering a team that doesn’t see much of either in the Eastern Conference very often. Regardless, the Nuggets showed up for this playoff preview and moved to 7-1 since the break as they fight for the number one seed in the Western Conference – which as tonight showed would make them even harder to defeat before the Finals.

Denver’s bench brought the energy tonight. They were not perfect but they fought hard. Jamal Murray played defense all night whether on Tatum or others, with starters or the bench, but this time the bench came with him. Denver got turnovers, Peyton Watson and Justin Holiday both had key blocks, and Zeke Nnaji came up with good defense as well as a pair of finishes. The entire bench had a positive plus/minus tonight even if the points with Jokic off the court were slightly negative, and Denver needs that kind of commitment from its reserves to get the job done in the post-season. Greatness isn’t expected, but effort and determination are – and the Nuggets had that tonight to force Boston to play Denver’s game. Nothing easy when it mattered meant that Denver left with the win.