The Denver Nuggets began their four-game East Coast trip on the right foot Thursday, blowing out the New York Knicks by 37 points.
Things will get considerably harder Friday, when the Nuggets visit the Celtics for the only time this season. Boston is one of three NBA teams still undefeated at home (8-0) and has won four of five since a 96-92 setback at Denver on Nov. 22.
In that game, the Celtics entered the fourth quarter trailing 70-57 before rallying as close as one with 2:19 remaining. Boston was within two with 2.7 seconds left before Jamal Murray sunk a pair of free throws to seal the win for the Nuggets.
Thursday’s 129-92 victory over New York was much simpler for Denver, which held a 31-17 edge in scoring in the fourth and led by as much as 43 points in the quarter. Eight Nuggets players — including five off the bench — scored in double figures, paced by Will Barton with 17.
Nikola Jokic’s scoring woes continued with six points, though he had 10 rebounds and eight assists. The 24-year-old star center has surpassed 10 points just once in his last five games.
Jokic admitted he’s struggling earlier this week, saying he “cannot make shots.” His coach, Michael Malone, points to the team’s success, noting its accomplishments while its best player is “not even being close to the level that we know he’s capable of.”
Thursday’s victory snapped a two-game skid for the Nuggets, tied for their longest of the season. Denver has only played back-to-back nights once, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the tail end of the first set Oct. 29.
“If you want to be a team that’s truly competing late in the playoffs, you can’t afford three-game losing streaks,” Malone said. “You gotta right the ship right away.”
The Celtics enter off a 112-93 win Wednesday over the Miami Heat, who were playing the second half of a back-to-back. Jaylen Brown scored 31 points, 22 in the second half, to lead Boston in the key victory.
“The last few games, people have been blitzing the same way, so (I’m) just being aggressive out of it and trying to make plays,” said Brown, who has scored 20 or more points in five of his last six games.
Boston was forced to adjust against Miami without guard and team leader Marcus Smart, who sat out with an illness and an abdomen injury. Smart is questionable for Friday’s game; in his absence, Semi Ojeleye played extra time off the bench and set the tone defensively, as the Celtics outscored the Heat 62-41 in the second and third quarters.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence that those 24 minutes were our best 24 minutes defensively tonight,” said coach Brad Stevens.
In the loss to the Nuggets last month, Celtics point guard Kemba Walker was carted off the court after he sustained a neck sprain in a collision with Ojeleye. Walker missed only one game with the injury and has averaged 25 points per game since his return.
–Field Level Media