DENVER - Even with Kevin Garnett back on the floor, the Celtics' dominance against the Western Conference came to an end last night.
The Celtics were defeated by a West team for the first time this season, sustaining a 124-118 loss to Denver in front of a sold-out crowd of 19,894 at the Pepsi Center - the largest regular-season crowd in Nuggets history.
The Celtics (41-10) are now 16-1 against the West, including a 5-1 road mark. Boston's five-game winning streak also came to an end, as it became the last NBA team to reach 10 losses and gave up a season-high in points.
Garnett was rusty in his return from the abdominal strain that caused him to miss nine games. He had 4 points on 2-of-7 shooting and 8 rebounds in 21 minutes.
"I'm rusty as hell," said Garnett. "I've been out 2-3 weeks. Feels like I've been out for a couple of years. My legs feel good, though, obviously. Running up and down didn't help me in Denver with this [altitude] here."
Asked for his opinion on how Garnett looked, coach Doc Rivers said, "Not very good. But you've got to expect that when he sits out that long. He was rusty. We knew that was coming."
In the opener of a five-game Western swing, Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 24 points while Rajon Rondo had 22 and Ray Allen added 20. Denver's Carmelo Anthony led all scorers with 29, and Allen Iverson had 28.
Marcus Camby had 11 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and blocked 9 shots - just missing a triple-double.
The Celtics made 19 of 28 free throws while the Nuggets made 34 of 49, and both Rivers and Garnett expressed displeasure with the disparity.
"We didn't get any calls, man," Garnett said. "They shot 49 free throws. We can't win any games like that.
"We don't get a lot of the same calls that are going around the league. Maybe we need to put a tape together and put it into the league or something.
"I'm not taking anything from Denver tonight - they were the better team and they beat us."
"Forty-nine to 28 is one hell of a stat, when I thought we were actually driving more," said Rivers. "But we are on the road. That's the way it's going to be. With all that, we still could have won the game."
Although Garnett seemed to get stripped in the post by Kenyon Martin with 7:22 left in the first quarter, the house statistician called it his first shot of the game. He then missed a jumper with 6:53 left in the first. And with the Celtics down, 17-9, and 6:23 left in the first, Rivers called timeout and Garnett went to the bench.
The Nuggets owned a 36-31 lead after one. With Garnett on the bench, the Celtics tied the score at 44 on a lay-in by Pierce. Tony Allen's 3-point play gave the Celtics a 51-46 lead, but the Nuggets responded with an 11-6 run to take the lead back at 57-56. Garnett returned with 2:23 remaining in the half.
Rondo raced down the court in time to throw in a running lay-in with 0.9 seconds remaining in the half to tie the game at 62.
The Nuggets used an 11-0 run - finalized by an Anthony 3-pointer - to go ahead, 75-66. The Celtics responded with a 7-0 run.
Nuggets reserve forward Linas Kleiza, who suffered a sprained left ankle in the second quarter, nailed two straight 3-pointers to give Denver a 101-91 lead.
Garnett's putback dunk brought Boston within 105-104 with 3:35 remaining, but he was called for goaltending on Martin with 3:16 left and Denver went up, 107-104. Camby's third 3-pointer of the season gave the Nuggets a 111-104 lead with 2:19 remaining.
Iverson's 3-pointer with 1:23 left gave Denver a 115-107 lead. A 3-pointer by Eddie House trimmed Boston's deficit to 119-115 with 23 seconds remaining.
Allen was credited with a 3-pointer on a debatable goaltend by Anthony with 13.7 seconds left that brought Boston within 121-118. But Anthony nailed two free throws with 11.5 seconds left to seal the win.
"We didn't want to get in an offensive shootout with the Nuggets," said Rivers. "They have so much firepower. We did that and still had a chance to win."
Said Iverson, "If teams don't know we are talented by now, then they'll never know. We have enough talent on this team to scare some people."
Camby said simply, "We needed this one."
Asked about losing to a team from the West, Rivers said, "I don't give a crap about that. I would have loved to have gone undefeated. But if you lose to them eventually, it's not a big deal.
"It's the first game on the road trip and we have to get ready for [tonight's] game. But I bet half of our guys didn't even know we were undefeated."