Chris Forsberg

Celtics' showdown with Nuggets will test the ‘good loss' theory

Can Tuesday's collapse in Cleveland help the Celtics recalibrate?

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Is there such thing as a good loss?

No loss feels good in the moment. Especially not when you fumble away a 22-point, fourth-quarter lead and watch your superstar lollygag his way into a back-iron fadeaway like the Celtics did in a one-point loss on Tuesday night in Cleveland.

So when Kristaps Porzingis, bless his unfailingly positive heart, suggested in the aftermath that a little adversity might have been good for these previously steamrolling Celtics, we can’t help but scrunch our face.

But Porzingis’ positive spin after Tuesday’s loss in Cleveland did jog our memory back to this team's last “good loss." Both coach Joe Mazzulla and his players came away from a narrow January loss against the Nuggets feeling suspiciously encouraged.

If Tuesday night’s debacle in Cleveland forces the Celtics to address lingering final-shot clunkiness, and serves as a firm reminder for the necessary defensive energy required over the course of 48 minutes against a playoff-caliber opponent, then maybe some good can come out of a maddening finish.

A lot of good has undeniably come since that Denver defeat. Boston is an NBA-best 16-3 since that game. The three losses were 1) A rare clunker against the Clippers, 2) A complete dud against the star-less Lakers, and 3) The fourth-quarter disaster in Cleveland on Tuesday night.

Since that loss to Denver on January 19, Boston owns the best net rating in the NBA at +14.8, which is 6.6 points better than the next closest team (Minnesota, +8.2) and more than double the next best team in the Eastern Conference (Cavaliers, +6.7).

Boston’s offensive rating since that game is 124.2 -- best in the NBA by five full points -- and their defensive rating is 109.4, trailing only the season-leading Timberwolves in that category.

Maybe, just maybe, Porzingis was right when he offered optimism after that Denver loss, that notably ended with another less-than-ideal miss by Jayson Tatum at the buzzer.

“Even though we lost, it's a great game for us,” Porzingis said in January. "There are many things I think that we're gonna look at and we can study those things because [Denver] is a real team, this is last year's champs. And that's what we want to be.”

The Celtics have seemingly operated with another level of offensive precision since that loss. They hunted matchups that night, and while it didn’t result in much-needed late-game scoring in that game, the team has been far more methodical in its offensive approach ever since. (Sans final possessions, at least.)

After that January loss to Denver, the Celtics emerged feeling good about their own title chances given the playoff-like intensity the reigning champs brought to Boston.

"They’re the champs for a reason,” Derrick White said in January. “They win games in many different ways and I think we’ve shown we can win games in many different ways. And we just didn’t make the right play or enough plays to win it tonight. So obviously that’s something we can look back and learn from and grow from. And we’ve got a lot of time so we’ve just gotta grow from there.”

We’ll find out Thursday night just how much the Celtics have grown. Tuesday’s loss should ensure that Boston will keep its foot on the accelerator against the Nuggets, who are smarting from their own overtime stumble against the Suns on Tuesday night.

This isn’t just one of 82. This is a late-season measuring stick and a potential 2024 Finals preview. If both sides are at full strength — Jaylen Brown starts the day as questionable on the injury report — this has the potential to be one of those special regular-season battles.

It’s an opportunity for the Celtics to show just how much they learned from that January loss. And, if it comes down to a final shot, they most certainly better learn quick from that loss on Tuesday night.

Editor's Note: Catch Drew Carter and Brian Scalabrine on NBC Sports Boston's broadcast of Celtics-Nuggets at 10 p.m. ET, with coverage beginning at 9 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live.

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