BOSTON — About 90 minutes before the finale of Denver’s six-game road trip against the Celtics, coach Michael Malone stressed the Nuggets would be facing one of the NBA’s best teams, with one of its best players, in one of its best environments. Malone hoped his team would not “exhale” following a tenacious defensive effort in a win at Detroit the previous night.
The Nuggets hung around for the bulk of Wednesday’s contest at TD Garden. But an short-handed Denver squad ultimately did not have enough firepower to keep up with Boston in a 124-118 loss.
“There are no moral victories in this business, but I like the fact that we’re competing,” Malone said after the game. “I like the fact that we’re giving ourselves a chance to win against really good teams while we’re undermanned. This is only going to make us stronger down the stretch.”
After building a double-digit first-half lead, the Celtics (24-6) answered anytime Denver made a second-half push. When Gary Harris — who scored a career-high 36 points to go along with six assists — went airborne for a putback layup to tie the score at 85, Boston answered with an 8-2 run capped by an old-fashioned three-point play by rookie Jayson Tatum. When a Malik Beasley basket cut the Celtics’ lead to 97-94 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, Boston scored nine straight to stretch the lead back to 12 points.
Denver, which still sits in fifth place in the Western Conference at 15-13, saw its depth shrink even more against the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics. Though officially listed as available to play, standout center Nikola Jokic (sprained ankle) sat out his seventh consecutive game. Versatile perimeter player Will Barton, who has emerged as the Nuggets’ leading scorer in Jokic’s absence, missed the game with a lower back contusion sustained Tuesday in Detroit. All-star power forward Paul Millsap rejoined his team Tuesday, but in a suit, as he’s in the early stages of a long recovery after reconstructive wrist surgery late last month.
Still, Denver shot just under 50 percent on a Boston team that entered Wednesday as the NBA’s best scoring defense (97.3 points allowed per game).
The Nuggets made their first six attempts of the game and led by as many as seven points when Beasley converted a putback layup late in the opening quarter. But the Celtics closed the first on a 9-3 run, then outscored Denver 38-28 in the second quarter to build a double-digit lead.
Boston was also short-handed, playing without Al Horford (rest) and Gordon Hayward (fractured ankle). But they welcomed the return of MVP candidate Kyrie Irving (33 points, seven assists) from a quadriceps injury, the continued production of Jaylen Brown (26 points) and the bench spark from Shane Larkin (14 points). Overall, Boston shot 59.5 percent from the field and 11-of-25 from 3-point distance and reached its highest point total of the season.
Denver had a chance to finish its road trip 3-3, an accomplishment Malone believes few would have predicted given the injuries and dreadful start with two defensive letdowns at Dallas and New Orleans.
The Nuggets did not “exhale” in their finale against one of the NBA’s best teams, with one of its best players in one of its best environments.
But they ultimately did not have the firepower to keep up with the Celtics.
“Our guys didn’t roll over. We didn’t quit. We played to the buzzer,” Malone said. “That’s a sign of a team that is growing, and then hopefully that’s going to lead for very good things for us as we move forward.”