Chris Forsberg

Celtics are still searching for Denver's championship mettle

This C's still have another level to reach in crunch time.

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Can we be greedy for a moment?

The Boston Celtics have the best record in basketball. They have routinely displayed the hallmarks of a championship-caliber team. It took three months for them to lose a game inside TD Garden. These Celtics are overflowing with so much individual talent that it doesn’t feel preposterous that they are trying to get their entire starting five to the All-Star Game next month.

All of which makes it feel gluttonous to yearn for more. It makes it feel unsavory to nitpick about two-point losses to defending champions.

But we’re going to be greedy, if only because, if the goal this season is Banner 18 or bust, then the Celtics need to be greedy too. In order to reach that lofty goal, the Celtics need to be just a little bit better in the crunchiest of crunch-time moments.

Look, Boston’s crunch-time numbers are fine. In fact, the Celtics' +18.7 net rating is fifth-best in the NBA, even if it seems impossible that the team that mustered just two points over the final 4:50 of Friday’s narrow loss to the Denver Nuggets is somehow posting a 124.0 offensive rating in crunch time (score within five points, final five minutes). Boston is a good-not-great 13-8 in crunch-time games overall.

But all the positive memories — like the overtime win against Minnesota here earlier this month — are often overshadowed by all the clunky late-game possessions and missed opportunities. A team that spends the first 46 minutes zipping around the court and scoring with ease tends to find itself stuck in the mud with the game in the balance.

Friday’s loss to Denver can absolutely be boiled down to this: The Nuggets star duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray made a string of big shots over the final five minutes and the Celtics’ star duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown did not. That does not put the loss on the Jays alone; it’s just the easiest way to detail how Boston endured its first home loss of the season.

The Celtics had 14 seconds to generate a quality final look coming out of a timeout, and after coach Joe Mazzulla needed to burn a second stoppage to settle a going-nowhere possession, Tatum missed the rim completely on a last-second fadeaway.

Derrick White, one of Boston’s best players throughout the second half, didn’t have the best inbound lob to Tatum, maybe putting a little too much oomph behind the high-floating lob that Tatum had to go up and save, but Tatum admitted he probably rushed a bit, too. 

Tatum, who fumbled the ball attacking in transition and watched a layup roll off the rim right before his late-game misfire, took the blame.

"I gotta be better and just really finish those,” he said.

Jayson Tatum breaks down his final shot vs. the Nuggets

Tatum knows how this goes. He’s made a bunch of big shots throughout his career but he’s navigating a stretch this season where most of those last-second game-winning/game-tying shots haven’t dropped. We linger on those and not all the ones he hit as Boston raced away from the Wolves earlier this month.

Of course, we’ll forget all those regular-season misfires if he makes the must-have shots on the biggest stage. The Celtics, as a team, simply have to be better with late-game execution. Yes, they can ease that task by being more consistent throughout games, but we all know that so many playoff games hinge on what happens in the final minutes.

We’re also willing to admit here that late-game execution sometimes just boils down to shot-making. The Celtics played great defense for much of the night, forced the Nuggets into tough looks, and Jokic and Murray just made shots. You can make a case that Boston expended so much energy trying to make life difficult for those two that players like Brown, who hounded Murray for much of the night, and Kristaps Porzingis, who sparred with Jokic, found themselves running on fumes at times in the second half.

Regardless of opponent, if Tatum and Brown combine to go 2-for-17 beyond the 3-point arc overall, you’re going to struggle win the game. Jokic and Murray were a combined 13-of-21 shooting in the second half for 31 points; the Jays were 6-of-18 for 12 points.

Friday’s loss doesn’t change the ceiling for these Celtics. They still ooze championship potential. There were undoubtedly chances outside of the final five minutes that could have prevented the game from hinging on late-game shots.

But we’re going to be greedy.

The Celtics are still searching for the killer instinct that championship teams tend to have in the big moments. If the Celtics are going to achieve their loftiest of goals, they’ve got to be better in those moments.

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