BOSTON -- The NBA's two hottest teams generated arguably the best game of the season Sunday night, and here's why: The Celtics and the Nuggets were both trying to play fast, both trying to share the ball and both trying to prove at each other's expense that old-school teamwork can carry them deep into the postseason. One big play after another extended their argument back and forth into three overtimes of Boston's eventual 118-114 win.
"I thought we played as well as we can play with the circumstances,'' said coach George Karl after his Nuggets' nine-game winning streak ended on the tired end of a back-to-back that began Saturday night in Cleveland. "We played with a lot of heart, a lot of guts, we took a lot of punches and fought back every time.''
The Celtics have now won seven straight games since Rajon Rondo's season was done in by a torn ACL, and on Sunday their elderly trio looked especially young in his absence. Jason Terry (a season-best 26 points in 43 minutes) was 0-for-5 in the OTs before draining a go-ahead three (116-113) with 93 seconds left. One minute later he was stripping Andre Miller to maintain Boston's lead.
Kevin Garnett went 47 minutes for his 20 points, 18 rebounds and 6 assists. His shooting improved inexplicably as the game wore on -- he was 3-of-4 in the extra periods after going 6-of-20 in regulation. "It seems like Garnett has a huge heart,'' said Karl in a moment of understatement worthy of a British accent.
Pierce had a triple-double of 27 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists in 54 minutes. The Celtics were trailing by 107-104 in the waning seconds of the second OT when Pierce dribbled to his left for a fallaway three over Miller after Boston coach Doc Rivers had watched his plans to create a pick and roll for Pierce fall apart. Pierce is one of the few NBA stars who would dare to shoot his way out of such deep trouble with confidence.
"That's what great players do,'' said Rivers. "I would love to tell you I had something to do with it. I was sitting just like the fans saying, 'Please, Lord, Paul make a shot.' Originally we were going to go for a quick two -- once he got under the 11-second mark I was yelling, 'We have to take a three now.'"
One month ago the Celtics might have been uncharacteristically afraid of the young Nuggets, arguably the league's fastest, deepest and most aggressive team. It is still hard to understand how an injury to the Celtics' fastest player has enabled them to play faster, but that is what has happened post-Rondo. Instead of worrying about containing the Nuggets, Boston attacked them while forcing turnovers to seize an early lead.
The Nuggets' most expensive player and Olympic gold medalist Andre Iguodala left the game in the third quarter with an injury, but explosive point guard Ty Lawson made up for his absence with 29 points and 9 assists, including an equalizing banked-in runner in the final second of regulation. Denver outscored its hosts 62-30 lead in the paint, 23-11 on second-chances and 22-14 in transition. But the Nuggets also turned it over 21 times for 24 Celtic points, and Boston outshot them comprehensively from both the three-point and free-throw lines.
The Nuggets failed to convert chances to win at the end of the first two overtimes, and they were down by only 2 points when Miller hoisted an all-or-nothing three with 4.9 seconds in the final session. "I don't know how many times in the third and fourth quarter they went up 10 points, but we kept coming and kept feeling like we could figure out how to win the game,'' said Karl. "I'm just sad that we didn't win the game because I thought it would be a great win for us.''
The clashing of similar styles resulted in 19 blocked shots and 37 turnovers between the two teams. It was not so much a struggle of heavyweights as it was a flurry between bantamweights relying on speed and wits and resiliency. "I've been saying for weeks that our team has more toughness than people think we do,'' said Karl. "I just feel that there's a maturity happening on this team that for me is pretty obvious, but it's difficult to feel good after a loss."
The TD Garden was thatched with empty seats as a result of a weekend blizzard that convinced many fans to stay home, to their disappointment. Those who were here were able to forget about the banks of snow outside and pretend for three hours that this was one of those transcendent games usually associated with the warmer weather of the playoffs.
"I don't think either team played great,'' Rivers admitted. "We missed a ton of open shots and so did they. We made a couple mistakes; so did they. Bottom line is Paul was a shot-maker, made a big shot, and we just did enough to win. And I'll take the win."