BOSTON — Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic spent the two days leading up to Friday night's game with the Boston Celtics mourning the death of Golden State Warriors assistant Dejan Milojevic.
Then he went out and collected 34 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists in 38 minutes of a 102-100 win that ended Boston's unbeaten record at home (20-0) and honored his former coach's legacy in their native Serbia in the process.
“As I mentioned to our team after the game, I couldn’t be more proud of Nicola for playing the way he did after Dickey’s tragic death,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “That's what you do, and that's why I'm proud of Nicola. You've just lost someone you love and care about, that means a lot to you, that's been a mentor and coach to you.”
“So go honor him. You know what I mean? And Nicola went out there, and honored Dickie's memory and legacy by playing at the level he played at. It's not easy to do it with a heavy heart, but Nicola is a special person, obviously.” And it was amazing to watch him play with such a heavy heart and the level he played at when you think about who we were playing and you add everything else into the mix.
“That's why Nicolas is the best player in the world.”
Jokic is the defending NBA Finals MVP, while the Nuggets are the reigning NBA champions. These are the types of accolades Jayson Tatum and the Celtics are hoping to receive later this year. This game could easily have been mistaken for one in the Finals given the combination of high-level play, intensity, and the typically loud crowd on a Friday night at TD Garden.
The Celtics led 98-95 with 4:58 left in the fourth quarter, but missed eight of their last nine shots — with Tatum going 1-for-5 and missing a potential game-tying jumper in the closing seconds on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Tatum, who is 3-for-13 on tying or field-goal attempts in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime over the past two seasons, admitted afterward that he rushed the shot. He said he didn't know if Denver would have used its final foul to give the ball away, which would have forced the Celtics, who were out of a timeout, to give it back.
“I think I rushed it, and that's on me,” he said. “In the back of my mind, I wasn't sure if they were going to make a mistake. They had a foul to call. But I had more time than I gave myself, so I should have taken more time.
“But, I can't go back. Something I can learn from.”
It looked like a late-game playoff for many reasons — including Boston's offensive lag. But while the Celtics would love to get back many of those late shots, including two open 3-pointers missed by Jaylen Brown and Derrick White with a minute left, it was also a game in which Denver's stars shined.
Jokic and Jamal Murray (35 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists) combined for 69 points on 29-for-43 shooting (5-for-11 from 3-point range).
On the other hand, Tatum and Brown combined for 35 points on 15-for-43 shooting (2-for-17 from 3-point range).
When asked about the first time he felt it was going to be a good night, Murray said with a smile: “It has to be that way [like that] Every night.” He then moved on to the “technical” nature of the game and how both teams were giving each other different looks the entire time.
“We mixed it up,” he said. “I think they did the same thing for a few periods. It was a technical game, you know what I'm saying? Because everyone on the field had to be on the same level. It felt like there was something different every time out. They came in a 2-1 zone. 2, then they put a puppy [Holiday] I have to start with JB [Jaylen Brown] They'll press, sometimes they'll press, sometimes they'll attack, you know what I'm saying?
“Like I said, it was just one of those games where we had to figure it out as well. Both teams, you know, were going against each other. We kind of felt it and were able to throw in the haymakers and were able to get the final punch.”
Both teams have, in one form or another, played playoff tournaments. Aaron Gordon was on the court throughout the second half, playing as Denver's backup center — as he did during their title run — in an attempt to slow down Kristaps Porzingis after he scored 15 points in the first quarter. Other elite players from both sides played for 35 minutes and with high intensity.
“You're playing against the best team in the NBA,” Malone said. “It was like a playoff game. I know this is just the 43rd or 44th game, whatever it is, but it's kind of like a playoff game, playoff atmosphere and two really good teams. You know, they made the finals two years ago. They made the Eastern Conference finals this year The past, and they have high hopes, like us.
“It was a game we were all involved in. We put in everything we had and we were lucky enough to get the result we wanted.”
Boston was the 13th team in NBA history to start the season 20-0 at home, and was looking at stretches as long as that streak would reach 21. In the end, it was Denver's experience that won the night — and Jokic, who plays With his mind and heart elsewhere, he shows why he is a two-time MVP and quickly ascending to the list of all-time greats.
“It's not an easy task, believe me,” Porzingis said of trying to slow down Jokic. “He's the main focus, and obviously he still gets his numbers almost every night. He's very good.”
“He's not fast, he's nothing but he's just pure basketball talent. [He’s a] A pure basketball mastermind.”
ESPN Statistics & Information contributed to this report
“Beer enthusiast. Subtly charming alcohol junkie. Wannabe internet buff. Typical pop culture lover.”