Chris Forsberg

What Celtics must learn from Nuggets losses to ensure a June rematch

The Nuggets gave Boston plenty to work on down the stretch.

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The Boston Celtics have lost consecutive games for the first time in four months. Jayson Tatum is under siege for two late-game misfires. A week that started with everyone fawning over the Celtics will end with pundits punching holes in their title chances after the team fell into some old bad habits.

The Celtics deserve all the criticism they’ll hear. But we almost wish we could hop on the fast-forward button and skip to a Celtics-Nuggets NBA Finals.

Even with the two notable missteps in Cleveland and Denver, we’re more convinced than ever that we’re steamrolling toward a Celtics-Nuggets showdown in June. We’re not sure either team has much to prove over the final 20 regular-season games, but the Nuggets (and Cavs) sure gave the Celtics a bit of a to-do list before the postseason arrives. 

Coming off a fourth-quarter debacle in Cleveland, there was no reason for the Celtics not to be laser focused against the Nuggets. Instead, they couldn’t get out of their own way, and there simply isn’t room for error going up against Nikola Jokic.

Here are the four most maddening aspects of Boston’s loss in Denver:

1. Lack of championship poise

A lot of ink has been — and will continue to be -- spilled about Tatum’s late-game misses. We’ve screamed from our soapbox all season long that Boston’s late-game execution hasn’t been nearly as crisp as the basic crunch-time numbers might suggest. The Celtics absolutely have to be better in end-of-game moments in order to thrive on the playoff stage. 

But championship poise is needed over 48 minutes.

The Celtics missed free throws Thursday night. They triggered Playoff PTSD with some sloppy first-half turnovers that helped dig a double-digit hole. Denver's two end-of-quarter buzzer beaters in the first half really hurt given how much head coach Joe Mazzulla harps on closing out frames.

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Some nights the Celtics’ offense is a buzzsaw and you can get away with some miscues. A missed box out doesn’t hurt in those moments; a turnover isn’t as costly. But Boston’s missteps were magnified on Thursday.

You simply will not survive self-inflicted wounds against the best teams — and that’s something Boston learned the hard way in 2022.

2. Overshadowed Jaylen

Jaylen Brown was fantastic against Denver. Sure, he missed seven free throws, which looms large in a six-point loss. But Brown (and a late-injection of Jrue Holiday offense) was the only reason that Boston even had a chance late.

Brown seems reinvigorated since All-Star weekend. He threw himself into the dunk contest, made a case for All-Star game MVP, and has been scorching hot since the restart.

In seven games since the break, Brown is averaging 28.3 points while shooting 55.8 percent from the floor and 42.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc. His rebounding is up, his turnovers are down. He nearly stole Thursday's game by bullying his way to a steal in the final minute. Brown is steamrolling toward another All-NBA berth, aided by Boston’s overall success.

You can sense Brown’s frustration after losses in Cleveland and Denver. He hasn’t been perfect but he’s absolutely played with a higher sense of focus than his peers in those games. Even after being questionable entering Thursday’s game, Brown put the Celtics on his ailing back.

If the Celtics get this version of Brown when Tatum isn’t having a clunker of a week, then a team that’s already hard to beat becomes that much more dangerous.

Brown just has to make those free throws.

3. Bench woes

The Celtics don’t need their bench to produce a lot of points, but they do need their reserves pieces to produce positive minutes and help the team dominate small stretches, like when Jokic is off the floor. 

Boston’s four-man bench produced a measly three field goals over 53 total minutes of floor time between Al Horford, Xavier Tillman, Payton Pritchard, and Sam Hauser. All four finished with negative plus/minuses, including double-digit minuses for Horford (-10) and Tillman (-12), while Denver won the Jokic-less minutes.

We actually like what Tillman can bring to the bench group. His offensive deficiencies might limit his ability to stay on the floor but his defensive versatility is a luxury. We’re eager to see if he’s able to stay in the playoff-esque rotation after he gets increased playing time through the finish line of the season.

But on a night where Peyton Watson gave the Nuggets 17 great minutes, the Boston bench didn’t find a way to give the Celtics a needed jolt. The playoffs might boil down to the play of the starters, but Boston’s bench needs to be able to change the energy at times.

4. Tatum's turnovers and late miss

OK. Let’s not belabor this. Tatum is going to hear plenty of criticism after his late-game misfires. Most will ignore his playoff resume but it’s absolutely fair to fret his shooting woes with go-ahead attempts in regular-season games.

What’s more concerning to us is simply that Tatum didn’t respond well to the physicality and pressure that he saw in the last two games. For much of the year, Tatum has devoured defenses that send extra bodies at him. Against Denver, he had some painful giveaways that turned into easy Denver points.

He hit a couple first-quarter 3-pointers that felt like they might get him going early, but then he took just three shots in the middle frames. A 1-for-5 shooting fourth quarter isn’t good enough against a team where Jokic ensures consistent output.

So a week that was supposed to inject Tatum’s name further into the MVP conversation will end with the consensus that you can just ship that trophy to Denver. Tatum needed a monster week to truly sway voters who didn’t see him as a top-three option, and it was Jokic who only reaffirmed his spot as the frontrunner Thursday night.

The Celtics need to use these last two losses as motivation to find a focus that has been lacking the last five quarters. The Nuggets showed Boston in two meetings this year that you have to be just a little more crisp in playoff-intensity games.

If Boston learns from these lessons and puts them to practice in April and May, then they should get another crack at the Nuggets in June.

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