BOSTON – Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic spent the two days leading up to Friday night's clash with the Boston Celtics mourning the death of Golden State Warriors assistant Dejan Milojevic.
He then collected 34 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists in 38 minutes in a 102-100 victory that ended Boston's undefeated home record (20-0) and honored his former coach's legacy in their native Serbia.
“As I told our team after the game, I couldn’t be prouder of Nikola for the way he played after the tragic pass from Deki,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But that’s what you do. That's why I'm proud of Nikola. You just lost someone you love and care about, who meant a lot to you, who was a mentor and coach to you.”
“So honor him. Do you understand what I mean? And Nikola went out there honoring Deki's memory and his legacy by playing at the level that was being played at. It's not easy with a heavy heart, but Nikola is obviously a special person,” and it was incredible to watch him play with such a heavy heart and at the level he played, considering who we were playing against have, and when you add everything else.
“And that’s why Nikola is the best player in the world.”
Jokic is the reigning NBA Finals MVP and the Nuggets are the reigning NBA champions. Jayson Tatum and the Celtics hope to receive such honors this year. And this game could easily have been mistaken for a game in the Finals due to the combination of high-octane play, intensity and a typically rowdy Friday night crowd at TD Garden.
The Celtics took a 98-95 lead with 4:58 left in the fourth quarter, but missed eight of their last nine shots – with Tatum going 1-for-5 and ending up missing the potential game-winning fallaway jumper seconds before Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Tatum, who is 3-for-13 on game-winning or go-ahead field goal attempts in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime over the past two seasons, admitted afterward that he rushed the shot. He said he didn't know if Denver would use its last foul to give, which would have forced the Celtics, who were out of timeouts, to play the ball again.
“I think I kind of rushed it, and that’s on me,” he said. “In the back of my mind I wasn’t sure if they were going to commit a foul. They had to give a foul. But I had more time than I gave myself, so I should have taken a little more time.”
“But I can’t go back. Something I can learn from.”
It felt like a late-game playoff game for many reasons — including that Boston's offense stalled late. But while the Celtics would like to have some of those late shots back, including some wide-open 3-pointers that Jaylen Brown and Derrick White missed with a minute left, it was also a game in which Denver's stars came out on top .
Jokic and Jamal Murray (35 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists) combined for 69 points on 29-for-43 shooting (5-for-11 from 3-point range).
Tatum and Brown, meanwhile, combined for 35 points on 15-for-43 shooting (2-for-17 from 3-point range).
Asked when he first felt it was going to be such a good night, Murray replied with a smile: “That's how it was meant to be.” [like that] every night.” He then discussed the “technical” nature of the game and how both teams looked at each other differently over time.
“We mixed it up,” he said. “I think they did the same thing for a couple of stretches. It was a technical game, you know what I mean? Because everyone on the pitch has to be on the same page. It felt like every time off was a little different. They came out in a 2-1-2 zone, then sat Jrue [Holiday] on me to start and JB [Jaylen Brown] would press, sometimes they switch when pressed, sometimes they would flash, you know what I'm saying?
“Like I said, it was just one of those games where we had to figure it out too. Both teams countered each other to get the final blow.
Both teams played more or less playoff rotations. Aaron Gordon was on the court the entire second half and, as he had done during the title race, played as Denver's backup center to slow Kristaps Porzingis after he scored 15 points in the first quarter. The other elite players on both sides all played over 35 minutes – and with high intensity.
“You’re playing against the best team in the NBA,” Malone said. “It was like a playoff game. I know this is just Game 43, 44, whatever it is, but kind of like a playoff game, playoff atmosphere and two really good teams. You know, they were in the Finals two years ago. “They were in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They have high hopes, just like us.
“It was a game that we were all there for. We put all our chips in and were lucky to get the result we wanted.”
Boston became just the 13th team in NBA history to start the season 20-0 at home, and for long stretches it looked like that streak would reach 21. In the end, however, it was Denver's experience that won the night – and Jokic, with his mind and heart playing elsewhere, shows why he is a two-time MVP and is quickly climbing the list of all-time greats.
“It’s not an easy task, believe me,” Porzingis said of trying to slow Jokic. “He's obviously the center of attention and he still gets his numbers almost every night. He’s just that good.”
“He’s not fast, he’s nothing more than pure basketball talent.” [He’s a] pure basketball mastermind.”
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report