Celtics trounce Nuggets to drop Denver into No. 7 seed

The spark was minimal, and just like the Nuggets, it soon flamed out.

Despite a momentary Nuggets’ fourth-quarter spurt, the Celtics trounced Denver, 124-104, at Ball Arena Sunday night. Though for most of the night, it sounded more like the Boston Garden.

Boston’s Marcus Smart blew kisses to a portion of the kelly-green crowd, while Jaylen Brown beckoned them on from the bench. Thoroughly and humbly, the Celtics dismantled the Nuggets with a barrage of 3-pointers and a pair of 30-piece performances from Jayson Tatum and Brown.

“I can’t point to one thing we did well,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “That’s a sad thing to say after a 48-minute game.”

Denver’s defense, like the momentum they’d generated at the start of last week’s road trip, vanished. The 20-point loss marked Denver’s fourth loss in six games. The Nuggets fell to 42-30 and into the No. 7 seed in the West.

Nuggets’ MVP center Nikola Jokic was flummoxed by Boston’s relentless defense. His 23-point night came on just 8-of-23 shooting. As a team, the Nuggets shot just 40% while Boston shot 57%.

Denver’s bench tried to temper the rout, with 12 points from DeMarcus Cousins and 11 from Bones Hyland.

“Today’s performance was unacceptable,” Hyland said. “Lack of effort, lack of a lot of stuff.”

Disgusted with his team’s first-half showing, Malone deployed the entire bench unit to start the third quarter.

“It appeared just kind of like we gave in and quit,” Malone said, citing the starters’ awful close to the first half.

The ploy momentarily worked, even if it wasn’t sustainable. Hyland gave the Nuggets a quick jolt with two 3-pointers as did Austin Rivers, who knocked down two of his own.

The Celtics still hung 30 points in the third quarter with Brown’s shot-making and big baskets from Al Horford and Smart. Boston carried a healthy 98-75 lead into the fourth.

When Jamal Murray emerged at halftime from the Nuggets’ locker room, it represented one of the few bright spots of the first two quarters. Murray, sporting an all-gray sweatsuit, was greeted to some cheers by the fans that noticed.

In perhaps the most significant update yet, Malone poured cold water on the idea of Murray making an imminent return.

“I don’t have a definitive plan of what is next for Jamal,” Malone said. “He’s not close to playing in any of our games, I can say that. Will he play in any of the last 11 games? That remains to be seen. We’ll kind of approach it on a day-by-day basis. See where he’s at physically as well as mentally, and we’ll go from there.”

Though the Nuggets have played well since January, Malone was uneasy about the preceding five games (2-3) heading into Sunday evening. Over that stretch, the Nuggets hadn’t defended well without fouling, and they’d struggled mightily on the defensive glass. Even worse, their turnovers had become untenable.

“It’s definitely out of control,” Malone said of the turnovers. “… Sometimes it’s just really poor decision-making. We’ve had some boneheaded plays, dribbling out of bounds, off your foot, not catching the ball. Other ones are the result of poor spacing. Some are the result of trying to get Nikola Jokic the ball when he’s being tripled-teamed.”

Those weren’t the primary issues in the first half against Boston, but a lack of urgency definitely was. The Celtics racked up a 68-43 halftime lead, demoralizing the home crowd and emboldening a loud contingent of traveling Celtics fans.

Boston rained in 11 first-half 3-pointers, led by four each from Tatum and Payton Pritchard. Their ball movement – which fostered 17 early assists – kept the Nuggets’ defense scrambling as the Celtics shot a blistering 64% in the first half.

Defensively, the Celtics threw numerous looks at Jokic to keep him off his game. If it wasn’t the length of Robert Williams, then it was the skill of Al Horford or Grant Williams that bothered Jokic. His 5-for-19 shooting half was not only uncharacteristic in its volume but also in its inefficiency. He paced Denver with 16 points.

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