Celtics 113, Nuggets 99

Denver boot

Celtics put on clamp at finish to halt Nuggets

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 25, 2010

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This wasn’t the same team the Denver Nuggets saw a month ago.

These weren’t the same Celtics that let the Nuggets take a match to the Pepsi Center nets, shooting 51.3 percent, placing five players in double figures, and running up a total of 114 points, 7 more than their season average, busting up what was an otherwise impressive West Coast trip coming out of the All-Star break.

It wasn’t the same Paul Pierce, who at the time was a walking injury report, playing through foot, thumb, and knee woes, scoring 5 points on 2-of-10 shooting.

This Pierce could drive and get to the rim with relative ease. He could make life miserable for Nuggets focal point Carmelo Anthony. He could score 27 points in a 113-99 victory without being the most dominant player on the floor.

“The Paul Pierce that you saw out in Denver wasn’t the Paul Pierce that usually shows up to play,’’ he said. “I’ve battled through a lot of injuries this year and right now I’m as healthy as I’ve been all year.’’

It’s the difference a month makes. The Celtics, who pulled down eight offensive rebounds in Denver, grabbed 17 last night. Kevin Garnett, still regaining his form a month ago, put up 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists last night, looking like a version of himself five years ago. Rajon Rondo, who may have felt like he had to do it all a month ago, did a little bit of everything last night, putting together a triple-double (his second of the season) of 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 15 assists.

“It’s a completely different team,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “All of them are different. They’re better, they’re healthier. They’re feeling better.’’

The difference couldn’t have been clearer than in the second half, when the Nuggets tried to make a run. The Celtics led by as many as 21 points in the third, but by the end of the quarter the lead had been whittled to 7, with Anthony and J.R. Smith doing most of the damage.

A month ago, the Celtics let Smith go off for 19 points and shot it out with the Nuggets, 32-32, in the fourth quarter. Last night, they simply let their fourth-quarter defense put Denver in a sleeper hold.

After Pierce drove for a layup, Smith drilled a 17-footer that made it 98-87 with 8:30 to go. It’d be almost four minutes before the Nuggets would score again. Sparked by Tony Allen offensively (13 points) and defensively (five hard-earned fouls), the Celtics held the Nuggets to 7-of-16 shooting in the quarter, keeping them under the century mark, if only barely.

“We know Denver is a high-scoring team,’’ Pierce said. “So it really means a lot when you hold a team like that under 100. That just shows the type of defense we want to play and continue to play throughout the rest of the season.’’

Anthony worked hard for his 32 points. On one third-quarter possession, he fought for his own rebound and went up for a layup — being hacked by a swarm of Celtics in the paint — but had his shot roll around every inch of the rim and swirl out for Pierce to rebound.

All Anthony could do was shake his head, slightly glaring at an official. He missed 14 of 23 shots, scoring just 4 points in the final quarter.

“I think our D has really gone to another level over the last couple weeks,’’ Pierce said. “I think right in the nick of time. We’ve been on and off throughout the season. I don’t know if that has to do with injuries or lack of practice time, but I think this is the right time.’’

Led by Rondo (six offensive rebounds) and Garnett (four), the Celtics had their best performance on the offensive glass all season. They entered as the second-worst-rebounding team in the league (22d in offensive rebounding), but they outrebounded the Nuggets, who went most of the game with a small lineup, 45-36.

“We’ve been trying to do that,’’ Garnett said. “The focus is always to rebound, get the ball to Rondo, hit the lane, run the court, speed the game up, use our quickness . . . Rebounding is totally a focus right now, going down to these last couple of games.’’

Denver was the first in a collection of tough opponents slated to come through the Garden on this six-game homestand. The Celtics have fared slightly better on the road than in their own gym.

“This is the longest homestand we’ve had this year, I believe,’’ Pierce said. “It’s good to finally be home for two weeks ending out the season. Hopefully, we can just start playing well in this building and gather some momentum going into the playoffs.’’

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