A beauty pageant, it was not.
The Nuggets dropped a gritty, ugly affair Friday in Boston, falling 108-102 to the Celtics and snapping their own winning streak at two. Though it was competitive, the Nuggets were bitten by 21 turnovers that turned into 22 Celtics points.
“The whole night it was turnovers,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “You’re not going to beat anybody on the road.”
Nikola Jokic registered his NBA-leading 15th triple-double of the season but was uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball. His 23 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists were undone by his nine turnovers.
From Malone’s point of view, his superstar is spent.
“That guy is the definition of fatigue,” said Malone, citing the cumulative toll of the last three seasons. “… He’s exhausted, both mentally and physically.”
Asked about his fatigue level, Jokic wouldn’t concede an inch.
“Who cares?” he responded. “I think everybody’s tired. … That doesn’t need to be excuses for the mistakes.”
Now 30-25, the Nuggets will turn around and face Toronto on Saturday.
Starting point guard Monte Morris didn’t make the trip to Boston after landing in concussion protocol, which meant Bones Hyland earned his first career start. The rookie played quality minutes, but in crunch time, it was Facu Campazzo on the floor with Denver’s closing unit.
A curious no-call on Marcus Smart against Campazzo didn’t help the cause. The feisty Argentinian was called for a foul with 55 seconds left, but Smart wasn’t, despite shoving him. The incident hurt Denver’s late push.
Campazzo, who’d fallen out of the rotation recently, was impactful in his 29 minutes, finishing with 14 points and four rebounds. Aaron Gordon had 17 points and six rebounds to help buttress Jokic’s effort.
The Celtics were led by 24 points from Jayson Tatum and 22 from Smart. Their downhill attack, buoyed by 18 offensive rebounds, led to 54 points in the paint.
Rather than run any cohesive offense, the Nuggets settled for the easy outside looks to open the third. The 3-point barrage didn’t work, and in fact, spurred a 16-5 Boston run. There was little urgency or focus in the Nuggets’ sets, and the Celtics picked apart Denver’s lead with an extra gear of hustle on the glass.
The offensive slog only lightly thawed when Denver’s second unit returned. If nothing else, at least they played hard and attacked inside. Despite just 19 points in the quarter, Denver carried a 79-76 lead into the fourth.
With Morris in Denver, Friday became Hyland’s show to conduct.
“‘Hey Bones, you’re matched up against Marcus Smart, who is one of the more physical guards in the NBA,’” Malone joked prior to the game. “It’s gonna be a challenge for him. But we can’t leave Bones on an island, either. We’ve gotta help him. Bones is a gamer, he’s excited, he’s ready.”
The rookie wasn’t scared of the moment. He pushed the pace, thereby changing the energy with Denver’s starters.
“The one thing we stressed to our guys is that we don’t want to get caught playing half-court basketball tonight,” Malone said. “They have a lot of size, physicality, versatility. They’re gonna switch a lot of pick-and-roll, they’re going to switch off the ball. … We don’t want to get caught walking it up, taking the ball out of the net, playing against that set defense for 48. That’ll be a really long night if that’s the case.”
Despite myriad turnovers, the Nuggets wrangled a 60-51 halftime lead. Jokic entered the break with one of the more bizarre lines you’ll ever see – eight points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and seven turnovers. The Celtics scored 15 points off Denver’s 14 turnovers. The Nuggets countered with production all over the roster.
Gordon, in sync with Jokic, feasted in the paint in the first half. His 11 points led all starters, and Will Barton buried two 3-pointers for 10 points total in the first half. The biggest boost, though, came from Campazzo, who nailed three 3-pointers over the first two quarters. He paced the reserves with 11 points, easing the burden on Jokic once he returned to the game.