Tuesday, April 23, 2024

How Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray Dueling 30-Point End Celtics’ Perfect Season At Home In Boston

Nikola Jokic-Jamal Murray connection key to Nuggets' NBA Finals run

All the clichés about measuring-stick games and potential championship previews might actually be true about this one.

In a heavyweight bout between the defending NBA champs and the team with the best record in the league, the Nuggets held the Celtics to 39 points in the second half and 18 in the fourth quarter to knock off Boston, 102-100, on Friday night.

The Celtics are unbeaten at home no more. The Nuggets (29-14) were the first of 21 visitors to escape TD Garden with a win this season.

“I think this started after our loss in Philly, to be honest with you,” coach Michael Malone said. “A game that we felt we should have won and we kind of let go. The message to our team at that point was , I told them, ‘All right, we gave one away tonight. Let’s go up there and give them their first (home) loss.’”

Protecting a one-point lead in the last minute after a Jayson Tatum dunk brought the “Gah-den” to a crunch-time crescendo, the Nuggets survived with their toughest, clutchest defense of the season. A driving Nikola Jokic kicked to Aaron Gordon, who air-balled an open three in the corner. But he and his teammates got back and challenged Tatum at the rim, enough that a frantic sequence and missed layup ended up back in the hands of Gordon — on fumes after playing the entire second half.

He made one of two free throws, and Boston’s last possession was thwarted when the Nuggets denied Tatum a chance at working in isolation. After a timeout, Tatum missed a fade-away jumper over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as time expired.

“Just crowding him and being tough in that low post and being able to get a contest,” Caldwell-Pope said.

Jokic amassed 34 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. Jamal Murray, on an unthinkable heater most notably in the second and fourth quarters, carried Denver’s offense in times of trouble with 35 points. He made 15 of 21 shots from the field, even turning to the stands after one fourth-quarter fader to dap up Victor Oladipo, who was sitting court-side.

Murray and Oladipo established a friendship during Murray’s rehab from an ACL injury, when Oladipo reached out and offered support.

“He’s hard to miss with those red slippers,” Murray said. “He’s a great guy, though. I was just in the moment, and I saw him there. Just gave him a dap.”

Murray and Jokic combined to shoot 67.4% on 53% of the team’s field goal attempts. The rest of the Nuggets combined for 33 points on 13-of-38 shooting and six assists.

“He is pure basketball talent,” Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis said of Jokic. “He’s a pure basketball mastermind.”

Colorado’s Derrick White led Boston with 24 points. Tatum added 22 laborious points (24 shot attempts) with Caldwell-Pope and Peyton Watson guarding him, and Porzingis contributed 21 points and eight rebounds.

When he was asked Friday morning how he approaches his matchups with Jokic, Porzingis said in earnest, “try to stop him a little bit,” as if he was well past the moment of epiphany that completely stopping Jokic is impossible. For the first few possessions of the game, however, Porzingis unexpectedly looked like the most unstoppable center on the floor. He scored Boston’s first 11 points with three consecutive outside shots, an appetizer to the Celtics’ 3-point contest style of play.

“We picked up our defense on him,” Malone said.

Jokic struggled to hang on the perimeter with Porzingis, who moves like a guard despite his 7-foot-3 frame. But when coach Joe Mazzulla went to a two-big lineup, the two-time MVP was able to cover Al Horford instead while Gordon or Michael Porter Jr. guarded Porzingis. It was an early taste of how Gordon would be used: as Denver’s backup five the entire night. No DeAndre Jordan. No Zeke Nnaji.

Malone was coaching this like an NBA Finals game.

“It was a technical game,” Murray said. “Just because everybody on the court has to be on the same page. It felt like each timeout, something was different. They came out in a 2-1-2 zone. Then they put Jrue (Holiday) on me to start. (Jaylen Brown) would press. Sometimes they switched with Porzingis. Sometimes they blitzed. … Both teams were countering each other. It just kind of felt like that.”

The Nuggets survived a pivotal stretch without Jokic to start a suspenseful fourth quarter thanks to Murray’s astounding turn-around shot-making. But Boston regained a 98-95 lead with Jokic back on the floor, prompting Malone to take a timeout with 4:51 remaining. Jokic responded by scoring the next two buckets, and Porter scored a put-back floater with 2:50 left to make it 101-98, Denver. The Nuggets didn’t make a shot the rest of the game.

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