BOSTON — The impetus for the season's biggest win began on the heels of a loss.
As the Denver Nuggets headed for the team buses on a bitterly cold Tuesday night in Philadelphia, that thought came across as almost unanimous. They conceded one in the last five minutes against the 76ers. They turned the ball over too much. They don't make shots when they count. They failed to deal Joel Embiid. And a game that was up for grabs slipped away.
They didn't let that happen again in a week that included the tragic and sudden death of Golden State Warriors assistant Dejan Milojevic, who coached Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic in Serbia. The past few days have not been easy. Milojevic is beloved by coaches and players throughout the league. Jokic is grief-stricken and does not want to speak to the media.
“The last two days, we've been rooting for him, comforting him and giving him hugs,” Denver coach Michael Malone said after Friday night's 102-100 win over the Boston Celtics. You lose someone you love and you care about and you respect him. Nicola did just that.
The Nuggets (29-14) became the first team this season to lose to the Celtics (32-10) at TD Garden. Boston's 20-0 streak had the Nuggets talking on the plane to Boston, and at the end of practice in a tank gym at Emerson College, back on Friday morning. Overcoming it was something they fought valiantly between the lines.
More importantly, in what was a preview of an NBA Finals game, the Nuggets established a blueprint for how to handle Boston's five-out offense and the amount of 3-pointers it produces. Denver raised the body and cross-match. Malone assigned Jokic to Jury Holiday and Michael Porter Jr. to Kristaps Porczys in an attempt to stay at home shooting the big man. Malone replaced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with star forward Jayson Dodd, making it impossible for Dodd to feast on Denver's second unit. Malone played Aaron Gordon throughout the second half and only played with seven guys in the second half.
This roster knows what it takes to win. The Nuggets drank champagne in June. A banner was hoisted in October. They flashed rocks on their fingers on the night of the ring. And for a group that wants more, it's one of those nights that doesn't come often on a normal January day. Friday night was a measuring-stick game where a team looking for another title could measure the main event toward that goal.
“We pushed all our chips into the middle of the table,” Malone said. “We were fortunate to come up with the result we wanted.”
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Have the Nuggets re-established themselves as title favorites? It's hard to argue otherwise. Their poise, the symmetry of their starting lineup, their understanding of what to do from possession to possession is unmatched in the league. Being as talented and deep and experienced as the Celtics, the Nuggets had more answers on both ends of the floor.
Jokic had 34 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. He did it 14-for-22 from the field in 38 grueling minutes while the Celtics chased around the defense. In an NBA chock full of talent and depth, Jokic still stands at the top of the mountain. And in front of a hostile sellout crowd, his bag floats and jumpers and footwork in the paint silenced the crowd time and time again.
Jamaal Murray was nearly as good, scoring 35 points on an assortment of jumpers and dribbling in the paint and basket. He grabbed eight rebounds and dished out five assists. He cooked up anyone Boston tried and Jokic made the offense happen in the minutes he sat on the bench. On the final possession, the Nuggets forced Tatum to miss, leading to their biggest hit of the season.
“Both teams threw haymakers and we were able to throw the final punch,” Murray said. “We mixed it up and they did the same thing for a couple of stretches. It's a technical game. It's a game where everybody has to be on the same page. Every time, something was different. There were different defenses almost every possession. It's one of those games where you have to figure it out.
Afterward, Gordon sat in his locker, covered in ice almost like a mummy. Jokic sat in his stall soaked in snow for nearly an hour. The Nuggets aren't as deep as they were last season and are looking closer to the postseason, but that won't stop them from being a heavy favorite for the championship.
Malone relied on nearly seven men in a matchup he coached like a playoff game. Last season there were eight. The most notable departure was Christian Brown, a valuable reserve this season. He only played five minutes Friday, and with him on the floor, the Celtics were able to throw tough double teams at Jokic. On the night, Jokic and Murray scored or assisted on 89 of 102 points, and while that was consistent, aside from Porter's late play, the Nuggets weren't as balanced as they wanted or should have been.
But they are still every bit as strong as they were in their march to the title last season. The collective chip on their shoulder isn't going anywhere. If anything, it's huge. And the ability to play at an elite level when needed is as ubiquitous as ever.
That means the road to the championship still goes through Denver. Also, good luck to the rest of the NBA trying to wrest a title from a great team like this one a mile above sea level.
(Photo: Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)