Stars carry the day in the NBA, and the Celtics have three of them in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker.
On Tuesday in a key 112-99 win at TD Garden over Western Conference stalwart Denver, Brown had a huge night, but the C’s got crucial contributions off the bench from Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams.
Coach Brad Stevens before the game said his team could “be better than we’ve been. I’m excited to see how we respond against a really good team tonight.”
Credit Stevens for turning to his young charges for energy, especially Nesmith, who entered in the first quarter and immediately started making plays all over the floor. The rookie Nesmith finished the game a game-high +20, scoring nine points, grabbed four rebounds and brought high energy. Pritchard finished +19, and Williams had eight points, eight rebounds and five steals. The Celtics bench outscored Denver’s backups 30-14, smoothing over the rough spots.
But it was Brown who led the C’s with 27 points, including eight late in the third quarter that broke open a tight game the Celtics needed after bad losses in their previous two games against dregs Washington and Detroit.
“We’re just learning and growing,” Brown said. ” This is a new role for me. We’re still learning and figuring it out.”
The Celtics had little answer for Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who scored 43 points. Running mate Jamal Murray added 25, but otherwise the Celtics depth completely outshone Denver’s two stars, and squelched Michael Porter Jr. (0-8, zero points).
Tatum had a rough shooting night (6-18, 21 points), and Walker (17 points) cooled off after a hot opening frame. But Brown wouldn’t let this one get away.
Jokic’s 36th and 37th points cut the Celtics lead to 74-73 with less than 4 minutes left in the third. Brown answered with a 3-pointer en route to 8 points in the final part of the period. Boston led 86-75 after three and the Celtics kept Denver at bay the rest of the way.
The Celtics don’t have much time to celebrate: Trae Young’s explosive Atlanta Hawks are in town Wednesday and Friday night before a three-games-in-four nights southern swing through New Orleans, Dallas and Atlanta starting Sunday. These next five games will go a long way toward determining how worried the Celtics brain trust should be about this team’s direction.
The Celtics’ offense was erratic as the game began; Walker was the stabilizing influence with nine points and three assists while Tatum tried to find a rhythm, scoring 4 points from the line and missing his only shot. Meanwhile the Celtics, who were missing Daniel Theis for the first time this season, out with an injured finger, had no answer for Jokic, the best big man in the NBA not named Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis. Jokic had his way, scoring 15 points.
When he checked out for the first time, the Celtics led by three. They made hay with him on the sidelines, stretching the lead to 41-30 before he came back.
A big part of the late first-quarter surge came after Stevens reached into his bag of tricks and found Nesmith. Coming off 29 garbage-time minutes in the loss to Washington, Nesmith sparked the C’s with all-around grit. When he checked in for Tatum at the 5-minute mark, the Celtics led 13-12. By the time he went to the bench again, the C’s were up 46-33 and his +14 paced everyone.
By that time, the Celtics were slinging the ball around en route to 14 first-half assists on 21 buckets, and despite awful 3-point shooting (8-25), they staked a 59-54 halftime lead. Jokic had a ridiculous 29 by then, and Murray contributed 12, but the Celtics shut down the rest of the Nuggets, who shot just 6-21 combined. The Celtics made Murray cough up the ball six times, forcing 11 first-half turnovers.
Nesmith, who has not even played a minute in 15 games, was a dervish.
“I come in every morning, I try to be the first one in the gym,” he said. “I’m just trying to do whatever the team needs me to do.”
Boston had turnover issues as well, committing 20 in the game. Brown had seven by himself, but more than made up for it with the rest of his game.
“We are imperfect, as everyone knows,” Stevens said after the game.
Perhaps. But Tuesday night, they were good enough.