DENVER — Survive and advance.

Those two words may rule the month of March in college basketball but it’s bound to become the Denver Nuggets’ rallying cry over their remaining 17 regular season games.

In the heat of a playoff race for the eighth seed in the West, the Nuggets corralled Isaiah Thomas and Boston Celtics 119-99 behind a triumphant return from Nikola Jokic and Danilo Gallinari, who both missed Wednesday’s loss to Washington with illnesses.

Jokic recorded a quiet 21 points, ten rebounds, while Gallinari chipped in 20 as Denver got some much-needed breathing room between themselves and the idle Portland Trailblazers who were breathing down the Nuggets’ necks coming into tonight for the eighth seed.

“Jokic can do everything as we all know and Gallo is a great scorer,” Wilson Chandler said. “We needed both of them.”

The Celtics are dangerous. They’re currently the second seed in the Eastern Conference, but the Nuggets controlled tonight’s game for the full 48.

“Now we’re 5-4 since the break. In our five wins our defense has been really good,” Michael Malone said. “And in our four losses it’s been non-existent.”

Denver led by ten after one, 11 at the half, then 14 after three.

Chandler was also huge, pouring in 23 points and eight assists himself, while rookie Jamal Murray was big in the third quarter and finished with 13 points off the bench.

Thomas led Boston with 21 points on 7-14 shooting to go with five assists. Avery Bradley and Al Horford added 16 and 15 respectively.

“We were very aggressive (on defense), Gary was,” Malone said. “They lead the league in dribble hand-offs per game. On dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls we had our bigs up. Nikola was up. Darrell Arthur, Mason Plumlee were even up higher. Make (Thomas) see a crowd. We tried to put two on the ball at times, make (Thomas) more of a facilitator and playmaker.”

Injuries were the storyline coming into tonight’s matchup. After Gallinari (vertigo) and Jokic (flu) were both sidelined against Washington Wednesday, Denver’s first and third-highest scorers respectively returned to the starting lineup against Boston.

Their impact was immediate.

Gallinari scored 11 points in the quarter on 3-5 shooting. The 29-year-old looked active, sprightly, and confident in his first-quarter minutes. Jokic turned in six points, four rebounds and two assists in the opening frame.

Also playing confident was Wilson Chandler, who poured in an additional 14 points on 5-8 shooting in the first. Gallinari and Chandler combined to score 25 of Denver’s 35 points in the quarter.

Enter Denver’s bench.

After leading by ten after the first, the Nuggets’ bench went on a 14-8 run to stretch their advantage to 19, with Murray as the catalyst.

Denver’s rookie point guard, who’s now fully accustomed to the backup role he’s assumed over the past month-and-a-half, scored 11 points in the quarter, eight of which came in a three-minute spurt that sent the Pepsi Center crowd into a frenzy

Every member of the Nuggets’ bench mob finished with a positive +/- in the quarter, but Boston, behind Marcus Smarts‘ eight second-quarter points and four second-quarter rebounds closed quickly

Denver was up 58-38 when Murray exited the game with 3:34 left in the half. Boston then went on a 16-7 run to get to within 11 at the break.

Boston came out hot in the third as Thomas started to show signs of life. Thomas scored 12 in the quarter on 4-7 shooting, but Denver corralled a promising Celtics run to take a 14-point lead into the fourth. The highlight of the quarter was two back-to-back Mason Plumlee dunks to quell Boston’s brief rally.

Boston busted out of the gates to start the fourth, drawing to within nine on a Jaylen Brown three-point plane just a couple minutes into the quarter. The No. 3 overall pick in last summer’s draft was impressive tonight finishing with 14 points on 5-8 shooting.

The Celtics drew to within eight in the early stages of the fourth, but Denver, behind an all-around team effort, pulled away down the stretch.

Postgame Video

Footnotes

Denver assigned rookie Malik Beasley to Sioux Falls where he’ll likely play for the Skyforce in their back-to-back Saturday and Sunday. It’s the No. 19 overall pick’s fifth assignment this season. Beasley was not with the team Friday.

What’s Next

The Nuggets are on a back-to-back and are in Sacramento Saturday against the Kings. Denver then returns home for a date with the two Los Angeles teams; Monday against the Lakers and then Thursday against the Clippers.

Harrison Wind

Harrison is a Boulder, Colorado native who graduated from CU-Boulder in 2013. He is currently residing in downtown Denver and is the lead Nuggets writer for BSN Denver. Harrison is in his second year covering the Nuggets as a credentialed reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @NBAWind.