The more you watch this Celtics team, the clearer it becomes they love a good challenge.
Despite having defeated the Denver Nuggets earlier this season, emerging with a win tonight will not be easy.
Denver (26-23) has won three in a row and currently takes up residence in the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, while the Celtics (35-15) are tops in the East despite having lost five of their past six.
And the Nuggets’ three-game winning streak, all at home, aligns perfectly with their season, which has featured them being dominant at home (19-6), and a doormat on the road.
The only teams with a better home record are Minnesota (20-6) and San Antonio (21-4).
Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s game:
Jaylen Brown has played well in his second NBA season for the Celtics. But Denver’s Jamal Murray has put together a strong second season as well. He’s averaging 16.3 points and 5.8 assists per game.
This season, he has scored 30 or more points on six occasions, more than any Denver player or any player in the league under the age of 21.
And the Celtics are well-versed on how explosive a scorer Murray can be. In Boston’s six-point win over Denver earlier this season, Murray had 28 points on 9-for-17 shooting from the field, along with a career-high 11 rebounds.
Defense has been the one constant with the Celtics this season. But it was hard to find the last time they faced Denver. Although Boston won by six points, they allowed the Nuggets to score 118 points, which was the highest point total allowed by the Celtics in a victory this season. The Celtics are second in the NBA in points allowed per game (98.1). Meanwhile, Denver is averaging 105.1 points per game, which ranks 11th in the NBA.
The name may not roll off the tongue, but not to worry. It will in due time because Nikola Jokic (pronounced KNEE-coe-lah yo-kitch) is well on his way to becoming a big deal in this league. The 6-foot-10 Serbian is averaging a double-double of 16.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game to go with 5.3 assists. He did not play in the earlier meeting because of a left ankle sprain. But he’s good to go tonight, evident by the triple-double he tallied in Denver’s 91-89 win over Dallas on Saturday night. In that game, he had 11 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists.
When these two met earlier this season, the Nuggets absolutely owned the Celtics on the boards with a decisive 48-30 advantage. Crashing the boards is something the Nuggets have been consistently good at all season. They come in with a rebounding percentage of .524, which ranks second in the NBA to the Philadelphia 76ers (.529). Meanwhile, the Celtics are 14th in the league with a rebounding percentage of .502.
AFTER THREE PERIODS …
Of course, we’ll keep an eye on the action throughout each quarter of play tonight. But where they stand going into the fourth quarter, that will likely determine the game’s outcome. This season, the Celtics have a 17-2 record when they lead after three quarters. The Nuggets aren’t too far behind, with a record of 20-4.
Boston’s defense has been elite most of this season. But like any unit, they have a weakness – defending corner 3’s. While Boston’s defense has limited opponents to shooting a league-low 43.3 percent from the field this season, they have really been burned by teams when it comes to shooting corner 3’s. This season, Boston ranks 25th in defending corner 3s, with opponents connecting on 41.9 percent of their shots from that part of the floor. And in facing Denver, the Celtics will have to contend with one of the league’s best at making them. Denver comes in ranked fourth in the NBA when it comes to shooting percentage (.418) on corner 3’s this season.