Denver Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic, who's now missed seven-straight games with a sprained ankle, was deemed "available to play" by team doctors prior to tonight's matchup with the Boston Celtics but didn't see the floor. The Nuggets fell to the Celtics 124-118 and missed Jokic but not necessarily because of his offensive prowess or improving defensive presence.
After the Nuggets outscored Boston 33-29 in the third quarter and trailed by five entering the fourth, the Celtics rattled off a quick 9-2 run against Denver's bench. That advantage helped Boston go on to win by a comfortable margin.
"Our guys off the bench have to play better," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the loss via Altitude TV's broadcast. "Right now our bench is not contributing to the cause. Our starters go out there and play really well. We go to our bench and we give up leads or we allow teams to go on big runs. We need our bench players to impact that game in a positive manner and we're not getting that right now."
Boston's bench outscored Denver's 29-16. Mudiay was a minus-20 in 17 minutes. Hernangomez, who was summoned to the Nuggets' rotation in place of Barton was a minus-16 in 14 minutes. Beasley and Faried were a minus-14 and minus-nine respectively.
But Denver battled. Down three of its four best players (including Paul Millsap who's out for an extended period of time after left wrist surgery), the Nuggets played hard. Gary Harris scored a career-high 36 points on 16-25 shooting. Jamal Murray scored 28 points for the second-straight night, 21 of which came in the second half.
"I was really proud of our guys in this regard. Long road trip, third game in four nights, undermanned, but we didn't use that as an excuse," Malone said. "We came out here, we played, we competed and we gave ourselves a chance to beat a team on the road who's also a very good team and has a good player in Kyrie Irving."
"I like the fact that we're competing. I like the fact that we're giving ourselves a chance to win against really good teams while we're undermanned and this is only going to make us stronger down the stretch," Malone added.
The Nuggets outrebounded a physical Celtics team 48-30. Denver registered 20 offensive rebounds to Boston's four. The Nuggets racked up 118 points on what is statistically the league's best defense even though the Celtics were without its rim protector in Al Horford and starting power forward Marcus Morris.
Denver can feel good about the loss in Boston as they wrapped up the six-game road trip with a 2-4 record.
Harris, who signed a four-year $74 million contract extension this summer that can reach $84 million with incentives, continues to earn his paycheck. The 24-year-old has stepped up with both Millsap and Jokic sidelined and is averaging 19.3 points through six games in the month of December — all of which have come without the Serbian.
"Just gave him the ball and got out of the way," Murray said of Harris' night.
"Heart, effort, hustle, determination," Malone said in reference to what he observed from Harris. "I saw that from most of the guys in our starting lineup."
Harris rebounded from an eight-point outing in Detroit on Tuesday night where he did have nine assists, to lead Denver on offense. The Michigan State product scored 15 points in the first half and 21 over the third and fourth quarters. Tonight was the best offensive game of Harris' young career.
However, Denver's defense took a step back from its performance in the Motor City. Against the Pistons, the Nuggets limited Detroit to just 84 points on 35.4 percent shooting in its best defensive outing of the young season. In Boston, it was quite the opposite. The Celtics shot 59.5 percent from the field and 44.0 percent from three-point range.
Irving led Boston with 33 points. Jaylen Brown chipped in 26.
Boston was also averaging just 39.3 points in the paint per game prior to tonight. In the first half, the Celtics tallied 34 points in Denver's painted area. Boston finished with 48 points in the paint. Denver was also effective inside and the Nuggets scored 58 points in the paint themselves. Mason Plumlee scored 15 points on 7-9 shooting.
The Nuggets now head back to Denver for a matchup Friday night against the Pelicans at Pepsi Center. Denver won its first game this season against New Orleans easily but lost by nine-points in the Bayou last week. With a pivotal game and more changes to the rotation on the horizon with Jokic's return looming, Malone has tough decisions to make in regards to minutes.
"Guys are getting opportunities. Some guys are taking advantage of that opportunity and just as revealing are some guys are not taking advantage of that opportunity and minutes are not going to be continued just to be given just because you think you deserve them. Minutes have to earned and if you're not playing well, those minutes are not going to be there anymore."