Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Nikola Jokić, Nuggets sweep season series, Celtics get a reality check

DENVER – The Celtics have done a lot of memorable things this year. But there's a hole in what they hope will be a championship resume. They did not beat the defending champions.

Now there's one simple question about this team: Can it beat the Nuggets in the NBA Finals?

On Thursday night, they showed once again that they can't figure out how to beat Nikola Jokic. The Celtics are trying to outplay their opponents through the league, but they can't checkmate the NBA's grandmaster.

“He's a good passer, but sometimes you help take away the dunker (Spot) and Aaron Gordon is a big crasher,” Jayson Tatum said. “There is no wrong answer, but the right answer may be different for each possession.”

Although Tatum has gained momentum in the MVP race since the All-Star break, this game will close the door on that comeback. Jokic once again dominated, while Tatum couldn't find consistency on either end of the floor.

The game was a litmus test for his candidacy and the lingering impression of him taking a back seat could affect his standing come voting time. For that to happen, the Celtics will always have to have a stellar record, but Jokic was unstoppable on Thursday and Tatum unengaging.

“I say it all the time, we talk about respecting each other's space and understanding the flow of the game,” Tatum said. “So it's not on me to want to hijack the game and try to make it about me, it's a nationally televised game. Other guys did that. So if I have to be in the corner, if I have to be a helper at times, so be it.

Jaylen Brown scored a season-high 41 points and kept the Celtics within striking distance while their half-court offense was swallowed up by Denver's defense. But the Celtics had too many fouls, including poor turnovers, fumbling the ball, missed defensive assignments and Brown breaking free throws (7 of 14).

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“It starts with me,” Brown said. “It starts at the top, it starts with Jason, and we made a lot of mistakes that cost us the game.”

The loss was self-inflicted, and Jokic won the game when Tatum missed a wide-open 3 to take the lead in the final minute. The Celtics didn't lose it as the former MVP dominated from start to finish.

To be fair, the Celtics tried almost everything. They started the game with a hybrid zone that tried to keep Kristaps Porczysas in the paint with bodies planted in Jokic's driving lanes. The Nuggets put it to rest quickly by putting bodies in both dunker spots.

The Celtics dropped Porcisas on the deep drop and helped Gordon stop the ball while Porcisas stayed on Jokic. That didn't work either.

And then when Borsizakis thought, Jokic shadowed him in single coverage where he needed to, spinning him like Denver great Hakeem Olajuwon.

“When you give (Gordon) the ball, he's going to dunk it,” Jokic said. “Like I told the guys, sometimes I don't need to look because I know where he is. I just have to throw it out there and he's going to get it most of the time. But if he doesn't get it, it's my fault.

If Brown helps out early and Tatum rolls over Gordon, Jokic finds Michael Porter Jr. for an open 3.

You have to believe Jokic will miss. Even if he does, Gordon cleans it up. Jokic is hard to beat once he gets into his groove.

“He was definitely in his bag tonight, he is, he's an unbelievable basketball player. I learned a few things from him today,” Porchisis said. “He's very smart, very crafty, and there are a lot of things that you don't see that will help that team win.” It's unbelievable. Whenever you give him a little help, he finds Gordon, he finds everyone, and talks about how valuable he is to them and what he does for them. Really, really, really (hard to stop).”

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The Celtics have yet to find the balance to stop Jokic and play their best lineup. Close the game with Al Horford? Maybe put more guards on him and do some matchup zones?

“I think I should have protected Jokic a little bit more, a little bit more,” Brown said. “I wish I could have had a little bit of those chances. I could have kept him away from the basket and we could have taken some of the chances they had. But I feel like we had every chance to win this game.

Brown insisted he takes on the biggest defensive challenges every night. If coach Joe Mazzulla is going to conduct an experiment in managing his locker room, it's all about who gets opportunities in the big moments.

Boston's players still talk about reaching another level and are motivated to reach it. But when you have a big lead in the standings, can you find that fire? Well, now they know the Nuggets stand in their way.

The Celtics have the best record in the NBA. But no one will care by the end of June. If you are not champions you are not the best team. So far, they have not been able to beat the champions.

When Porchisassis was asked if the Nuggets had the Celtics' number on them, he pushed back on the idea.

“I don't like that they have our number. I don't like that kind of phrasing,” said Porchisis. “They beat us twice. The difference between who wins and who loses is very small. Beat us at home. Hats off to them. And then they beat us at home. It's too small. It could have gone our way.”

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After years of frustrating, disjointed teams, Porchesis has a wry smile after these kinds of games. It was his second straight loss this season. Last year, his team was A losing streak.

“I love that we have this loss in the regular season. It stings. It has to sting,” Borschis said. “And we have to learn and improve and have some mental things that we can take away from this game. We had some emotional plays that we couldn't let happen in the playoffs. Some technicals that we absolutely didn't need. Those are the things that we take away from this game and bounce back from.

Porziņģis is a difference maker and has been key in taking the Celtics from the top flight to their own plane this season. So when Jokic looked back at him Thursday night, it was a reminder that a big lead in the standings and a generational net worth can become a small gap between two winning teams once you hit the floor.

“Yeah, they're a good team and yeah, they basically have the answer to everything, matchup-wise, defense-wise, offense-wise,” Jokic said. “They are a well-structured team and play very well. They are the best team in the NBA right now. It is very difficult to play against a long and tall team. This is a great team.”

The Celtics are still better, but the Nuggets may have the upper hand. Talk of the Celtics hitting another level is grounded in reality. They can beat teams by 50, but everyone knows the Nuggets are going to play to the death.

“What I like is that there's an edge for us to play better and play better, and yes, that's possible,” Borchissis said. “We hope to see them again.”

(Photo by Jayson Tatum and Nikola Jokic: Ron Chenoy/USA Today)

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