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When asked about the many trades the Boston Celtics made right before Thursday’s 3 pm trade deadline, many of the players said they were shocked. Thursday night in Denver, they played like it, too. The Boston Celtics did not score in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter, allowing the Denver Nuggets to go on a 16-0 run that turned a two-point Celtics lead into a 89-75 Nuggets victory at the Pepsi Center.
The Celtics- NBA leaders in shooting percentage- did not shoot the ball well all night, making just 39 percent of their shots. But they saved their worst play for the fourth quarter. The Celtics went 6/19 in the fourth on 31.6 percent shooting. Their last basket came on a Paul Pierce (team-high 17 points, 38.9 percent shooting) three-pointer with 6:05 left in the fourth, putting the Celtics up 75-73.
But after that trey, the team fell apart. It wasn’t just because the Celtics sank only two shots after that. Credit Denver’s defense as well. In the final six minutes, the Nuggets blocked two shots, drew a charge, stripped Ray Allen (10 points, 4/11 shooting, 1/5 from three-point range) on one play and forced him out of bounds on another.
The Nuggets defense was stingy enough in the fourth that it allowed Denver players to start running down-court in anticipation of turnovers, leading to easy lay-ups. With the Nuggets up 81-75 with two minutes left in the game, Denver point guard Ty Lawson found shooting guard Aaron Afflalo (13 points, one of five Nuggets to score in double digits) on a fast break. Pierce tried to foul Afflalo to keep him from scoring, but Afflalo still muscled in the layup. He sank the and-1 free-throw as well, putting the Nuggets up nine, at which point momentum swung completely in Denver’s direction.
Overall, the Celtics were outscored on fast breaks, 14-4. That they had such little success on fast breaks speaks to how well the Nuggets controlled the pace of the game, despite committing five more turnovers.
From a pure points perspective, the Celtics didn’t have a bad night. Besides Pierce and Allen, three other Celtics scored in double digits. Glen Davis, who started at center and had to contend all night with the taller and lankier Nene Hilario (12 points), scored 11 points. Kevin Garnett scored 14 while grabbing 13 rebounds for his 19th double-double of the season. And Delonte West scored 10 off the bench.
The Celtics showed this new squad can still score, it just took them far too long to do so. Davis shot just 30 percent from the floor. West shot 36.3 percent (4/11) and went scoreless from behind the arc. When West jumps, he seems to turn his shoulder towards the basket. It might work for him, but his shooting form seems more difficult, more across-the-body, then Allen’s. Garnett was the only player to shoot 50 percent or better (discounting Von Wafer and Developmental League call-up Chris Johnson, who combined to go 3/5 for eight points).
Perhaps most symbolic of the Celtics’ offensive incompetence were their plus-minus ratings, which measure whether the team tends to score or give up points when a player is on the floor. Not a single Celtic had a positive plus-minus. The Nuggets, who shot over 45 percent, only had one player who didn’t have a positive plus-minus, and that was only minus-one.
Had the Celtics found a way to economize their shooting, they likely would have had a more successful Thursday night. But they gave away too many possessions on low-percentage. They seemed too content to throw up bricks or dribble into double-coverage and turn the ball over.
Without a true NBA center, Boston could not compete with Denver underneath the basket. They were out-scored in the paint, 36-30. When the Celtics did get off shots, they gave up immediately. Boston managed just three offensive rebounds while allowing seven. The Celtics lost the rebounds battle 52-38, which is never surprising. But they also lost the assist contest, 22-18, and that is always surprising. Denver moved the ball well against an ever-tiring Celtics defense, with Lawson doing the lion’s share of the passing with 10 assists.
Rajon Rondo, meanwhile, had an uncharacteristically average night, scoring five points while dishing out “just” eight assists. His lone highlight was an acrobatic mid-air, behind-the-back pass to Davis that put the Celtics up 42-39 in the third quarter.
The Celtics were without any of the players they traded for, so they only dressed nine for the game, including Johnson, who had only logged 16 minutes of NBA playing time before this game. By wasting so many possessions, the Celtics put extra pressure on a defense that could not play at the same level of intensity it usually does. Without more bodies, the Celtics faded down the stretch, leading to the 16-0 Nuggets run.
Denver also had an easier time getting to the free-throw line, shooting 23 free throws to just 15 by the Celtics. The Celtics were already in the penalty with over six minutes left in the second quarter, and the Nuggets got six free-throws out of it. Although Denver only made 16 of their attempts, their near-constant presence on the free-throw line signified how out of rhythm the Celtics defense was.
With a bench that was more than doubled up by the Nuggets’ bench (40-18), the veteran (or maybe just “old”) Boston starters had to play extra minutes, averaging 36 minutes each. The Nuggets starters, backed by strong bench play, averaged just over 26 minutes each.