BOSTON – The impetus for the biggest win of the season began after a loss.
As the Denver Nuggets trudged toward the team buses on an extremely cold Tuesday night in Philadelphia, one by one, that thought occurred almost simultaneously. They gave one of them away in the last five minutes against the 76ers. They turned the ball over too often. They hadn't fired when it mattered. They had failed to get a handle on Joel Embiid. And a game that needed to be won was lost.
They didn't allow that to happen again in a week that included the tragic and sudden death of Golden State Warriors assistant Dejan Milojević and Nuggets star center Nikola Jokić training in Serbia. The last few days haven't been easy. Milojević was popular with coaches and players throughout the league. Jokić was grief-stricken and had no desire to speak to the media.
“The last few days we've just supported him, comforted him and hugged him,” Denver coach Michael Malone said after a 102-100 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday night. “As I mentioned to our team, I couldn't be prouder of Nikola for the way he played. When you lose someone you love and care about, honor them. And that’s exactly what Nikola did.”
The Nuggets (29-14) became the first team this season to hand the Celtics (32-10) a loss at TD Garden. Boston's 20-0 streak was something the Nuggets had talked about on the plane to Boston, at the end of their practice in a damp gym at Emerson College and again Friday morning. It was something they fought bravely for between the lines.
More importantly, in a preview of the NBA Finals, the Nuggets laid out a plan for how to handle Boston's five-point offense and volume of three-point shots. Denver increased his physicality and delivered a cross match. Malone assigned Jokić Jrue Holiday and Michael Porter Jr. Kristaps Porziņģis to stay home during the big man's shooting. Malone operated like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with star forward Jayson Tatum, leaving Tatum unable to enjoy Denver's second unit. Malone played the entire second half against Aaron Gordon and only played seven players in the second half.
This squad knows what it takes to win. The Nuggets drank champagne in June. In October they raised a banner. On ring night they flashed stones on their fingers. And for a team that wants more, this was one of those evenings in the mundane days of January that don't come around often. Friday night was a game of measuring sticks, allowing a team aiming for another title to gauge the main competition for that goal.
“We pushed all our chips to the middle of the table,” Malone said. “And we were fortunate to get the result we wanted.”
Kristaps Porziņģis loves the brutal battle with Nikola Jokić, even if the Celtics lose their first home game
Have the Nuggets once again established themselves as title favorites? It's hard to argue otherwise. Their balance, the symmetry of their starting lineup and their understanding of what needs to be done from possession to possession are unmatched in the league. Because as talented, deep and experienced as the Celtics are, the Nuggets had more answers on both ends of the floor down the stretch.
Jokić scored 34 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. He managed 14 of 22 shots from the field in 38 grueling minutes while chasing the Celtics around the corner defensively. Jokić is full of talent and depth in the NBA and is still at the top of the mound. And in front of a hostile, sellout crowd, his bag full of floaters and sweaters and his footwork in the paint continually silenced the crowd.
Jamal Murray was almost as good, scoring 35 points on a variety of jumpers and twisted finishes in the paint and at the basket. He grabbed eight rebounds and dished out five assists. He cooked almost everyone Boston tried against him and carried the offense in the minutes Jokić was on the bench. And on the final possession, the Nuggets forced Tatum into a miss that gave them their biggest win of the season.
“Both teams were a force to be reckoned with and we were able to deliver the final blow,” Murray said. “We mixed it up and they did the same thing for a couple of stretches. It was a technical game. It was a game where everyone had to be on the same page. Every time there was something different. There were different defenses on almost every possession. It was just one of those games where you had to figure it out.”
Afterwards, Gordon sat at his locker, covered in ice, almost like a mummy. Jokić sat ice cold in his stand for nearly an hour. The Nuggets aren't as deep as they were last season, and that's something to watch as the postseason gets closer, but that doesn't stop them from being among the favorites for to own the championship.
Malone trusted almost exclusively seven players in a matchup he coached like a playoff game. Last season there were eight. The most notable omission was Christian Braun, who has been a valued reserve this season. He only played five minutes on Friday, and with him on the field, the Celtics were able to throw tough double teams at Jokić. On the night, Jokić and Murray scored or assisted on 89 of the 102 points, and even if that holds up, aside from a flurry from Porter late in the game, the Nuggets weren't as balanced as they wanted or needed to be.
But they are still just as impressive as they were last season on the way to the title. The collective chip on their shoulder hasn't gone anywhere. If anything, it's bigger. And the ability to perform at an elite level when needed is as ubiquitous as ever.
That means the road to the championship still goes through Denver. And good luck to the rest of the NBA trying to wrest a title from a team as good as this, a mile above sea level.
(Photo: Brian Babineau / NBAE via Getty Images)