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Both teams came out swinging in Thursday's potential NBA Finals preview between the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets.

There was Derrick White sliding in front of Jamal Murray for a steal in the backcourt, then lofting a moonball of a lob to Jaylen Brown for an alley-oop, and the Colorado native annihilating a Reggie Jackson layup attempt.

But the defending champions, who led 30-28 after the first frame, got seven points from Nikola Jokic, including two where he tossed Kristaps Porzingis aside, spun, and threw down a two-handed slam, reflecting the physicality of the opening 12 minutes.

And while Jayson Tatum led all scorers with eight points in the first quarter, and Brown matched Jokic's output, a buzzer-beater three from Jamal Murray over two defenders outweighed their production.

Both teams manufactured 16 points in the paint. They also limited the turnovers to two in the opening period. The visitors kept Denver off the offensive glass, not surrendering any second-chance opportunities.

Perhaps the most egregious moment of the first frame came when Brown received a technical for clapping about the lack of a foul call from Tony Brothers after he scored over Aaron Gordon. He didn't show him up or swear. It was unnecessary, in this author's opinion.

The technical did nothing to dull the aggression the three-time All-Star was playing with. His outward emotion captured the intensity of this matchup.

Brown, who had 13 points in the last meeting between these two, repeatedly attacked the basket, putting 15 on the board in the second frame, giving him a game-high 22 at halftime. He also had eight rebounds, with six coming at the offensive end.

But Boston went 1/5 from beyond the arc in the second quarter and 4/16 in the first 24 minutes. And after taking care of the ball in the opening period, the visitors coughed it up five times in the second.

They also had to deal with Murray parlaying the momentum from his buzzer-beater into an early rhythm in the second frame that prevented the Celtics from gaining ground despite Jokic sitting on the bench.

When the two-time league MVP returned, he generated 13 points, with five coming at the free-throw line. Xavier Tillman in the first quarter and Kristaps Porzingis in the second had their moments, keeping him from the cup, but even some of those occasions ended with him showing off his feathery touch, scoring from a bit further than he hoped.

Porzingis even picked up a technical after wrestling with Jokic in the low post.

The Nuggets also took ten free throws in the second frame and were 14/14 from the stripe at intermission. Between that, Boston's seven turnovers, and the hosts' 11-4 edge in fast-break points, the Celtics had a lot to clean up -- while also needing to find their rhythm from beyond the arc -- coming out of the break. 

A halftime buzzer-beater banked in by Jokic extended Denver's lead to 62-54 entering the third quarter.

With the star center registering 20 points and six rebounds, plus five assists, in the first 24 minutes, and Brown having 22 points and eight rebounds, they and Joel Embiid are the only players to assemble a stat line of at least 20 points and six rebounds in a first half this season, per NBC Sports Boston's Dick Lipe. No one accomplished that in the 2022-23 campaign.

But in a welcome sign for the visitors after halftime, Porzingis, working in tandem with Tatum first, then Brown, produced back-to-back threes, with the seven-foot-three center putting more arc on his shot than in the first half.

And when Brown got an uncontested layup after a Nuggets miss, extending the run to 8-0, the Celtics evened the score at 62.

The defending champions countered with a 6-0 burst. And with the visitors struggling to string together stops, consistently giving up clean looks, the hosts built a 90-80 advantage entering the final frame. The ten-point lead was their largest of the night through 36 minutes.

While the visitors continued struggling to provide on-ball resistance and keep drives from getting into the teeth of the defense, a 5-0 burst featuring a three by Brown from the right wing before slinging an outlet pass ahead to Jrue Holiday for a layup pulled them within six, 97-91, with 8:04 remaining.

One of the most commendable moments came shortly before that, with Brown, who played his heart out but was 6/13 at the free-throw line, came up with a steal in the backcourt and charged to the basket, barreling into a defender, thinking he'd either score or get another chance at the stripe.

Neither occurred, but a lot of players would've shied away from the opportunity if they were struggling to convert on foul shots. Plenty wouldn't have put in the effort for the steal, either.

Between Boston's struggles walling off drives and staying with off-ball cutters as Jokic went to work facilitating out of the mid-post, it looked like the hosts might comfortably sweep the two's regular season series.

But when Jokic picked up a technical for arguing about the lack of a foul call, the officials correctly let the ensuing play unfold, and Brown got a transition layup through contact. The free throws from him and Tatum had the visitors within seven, 105-98, with 4:16 left.

From there, they staged an 11-4 run, including back-to-back threes by Holiday, narrowing the gap to 111-109 with 1:08 on the game clock and Celtics fans at Ball Arena making their presence felt.

Tatum had an open look at a right-corner three to give Boston the lead with 45 seconds remaining, but the shot fell off the iron, and another lob from Jokic to Aaron Gordon gave Denver some needed breathing room.

From there, they applied the finishing touches on a 115-109 matchup between the top two teams in the NBA in a game with a playoff-like intensity and physicality. Let's hope it's not the last time they see each other in the 2023-24 campaign.

The Celtics are on to a Saturday night showdown against the Phoenix Suns. That game will tip off at 8:30 EST at the Footprint Center.

Further Reading

Warriors' 'Disrespect' Only One Source of Fuel for Jaylen Brown Sunday

'The Best Team in the NBA': Luka Doncic Struck by Celtics' Balance

Jaylen Brown's Evolution Crucial to Celtics' Desire to Win with More Than Talent

Celtics Embracing Challenge to Go Beyond Most Talented

Jayson Tatum Opens Up About Sacrificing in Celtics' Title Pursuit: 'It's a Process'

Brad Stevens Discusses Celtics' Plan for Final Roster Spot

Marcus Smart Shares How Boston Shaped Him, His Message to Celtics Fans

Celtics Maturation Molded by Experience: 'It Builds, Like, an Armor'

Jaylen Brown Quieting Doubters, Validating What He Always Believed: 'Earn Everybody's Trust'

Joe Mazzulla Discusses Identity, Evolution of Celtics' Offense: 'Balance of Pace and Execution'