Exhaustion and scheduling finally caught up with the Celtics. And the Denver Nuggets not only caught the Celtics, they sprinted past them to the finish line in a 94-85 victory last night at TD Banknorth Garden.
The Celtics (8-2) had rallied from 16-point deficits for two victories this week, extending their winning streak to six games over nine days. This time, they overcame a 15-point third-quarter disadvantage, then squandered the lead. The Celtics' starters not only faded in this game, they disappeared to the bench in the final seconds, Kevin Garnett's dunk to tie it at 84 with 3:10 to play their last gasp.
"We just didn't execute when we had to," said Garnett (16 points, nine rebounds). "I wish I could give you all a specific reason. We didn't make shots when we needed to. We didn't get stops when we needed to."
The Nuggets went on a 21-6 run in the second quarter. The Celtics countered with a 21-5 run in the third. Then the Nuggets' reserves set the tone for the final quarter with an early 11-0 spurt. And the Nuggets' starters finished things with a 10-1 crunch-time rally that included misses by the hottest Celtics (Ray Allen and Eddie House), plus Garnett and Rajon Rondo, and zero attempts by Paul Pierce (19 points), whose late-game shooting had salvaged the last two victories.
"I don't focus on me having to get it going in the fourth quarter," Pierce said. "This is a team game and I play within the offense and, when we move the ball, make the extra passes. That's what it's all about. You find the rhythm of the game. It was about our defense not really stepping up. When you don't get stops, it's hard to make a run."
Allen scored 18 of his 26 points in the first quarter, converting his first four shots. He hit his final two shots of the quarter, 3-pointers with 1:37 and 2.1 seconds remaining. The Celtics' starters played the opening 11:18, Garnett and Pierce then departing and Allen concluding a 40.8-second possession with a 3-pointer for a 29-23 advantage after one.
But the Celtics' reserves failed to click and the Nuggets gained momentum.
Allen went to the bench for most of the second, and the Celtics converted only one field goal in the first 6:31 of the quarter. Pierce went 26:59 without a field goal, scoring on a drive 1:20 into the game and then on a jumper 4:19 into the second half. Allen's drought continued for 19:50, until his jumper cut the deficit to 61-55 with 4:12 remaining in the third quarter.
The Nuggets stretched their lead to 59-44 on Chauncey Billups's jumper 3:23 into the second half, but the Celtics responded with a 21-5 run. House's second-chance jumper for a 67-64 advantage 23 seconds into the final quarter seemed to signal the Celtics were taking command.
But the Nuggets' reserves responded, J.R. Smith with two 3-pointers and a 3-point play and Linas Kleiza with a layup and 3-point play over a 3:37 span.
"I thought their bench won the game, really," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We started the game terrific, the first four or five minutes, and then I thought we got cute with the ball. We had lay-ins and, all of a sudden, went to showtime. I think we were up 7 or 8 and could have really stretched the game early. And, with a team that had just come off a back-to-back, you've got a chance to make them go away early, and we didn't take advantage of it."
After Garnett's dunk tied it with 3:10 to play, Kenyon Martin's drive signaled what would be the deciding points, giving the Nuggets an 86-84 lead with 2:51 to go. Billups had a 3-point play off a turnover, Carmelo Anthony a 3-pointer, and Billups two foul shots in a 59-second span. Meanwhile, Garnett missed in close, and Allen, House, and Rondo failed on 3-pointers, all Celtics' starters going to the bench with 45.2 seconds to play.
"I think it's easier to shoot jump shots because you are tired and it's tough to drive and post and defend," Rivers said of the Celtics' schedule. "When you see a fatigued team, you usually see jump shots go up and you see front-of-the-rim misses, the other team get all the loose balls, all the offensive rebounds. And that did happen, but give Denver credit - they played [Thursday] night and they played with unbelievable energy."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.