DENVER -- It was merely a matter of degrees.
The outcome of last night's game would determine whether the Celtics' five-game road trip would be disappointing or potentially disastrous. It was the latter.
After the Celtics lost to the struggling Denver Nuggets, 120-110, to finish their trip 1-4, even the most charitable observers could not deny the obvious. Ricky Davis went so far as so call the trip ''terrible." If the Celtics (12-18) cannot turn their season around and improve their defense upon returning home, they may find themselves referencing this trip as the point at which the season took a turn for the worse.
The defeat showed that they learned nothing, or at least very little, during their travels. The losses looked very similar on the floor and statistically, though any positive consistency remains elusive.
Last night, they again had trouble defending (the Nuggets shot 53 percent) and committed far too many costly turnovers (18 for 23 points). The impressive numbers generated by the offense -- they scored more than 100 points and shot 51 percent -- didn't really matter. And that was not unexpected. The Celtics have broken 100 points in their last seven games and are 3-4. They are 2-7 this season when shooting 50 percent or better.
''I thought some of guys came with great effort and I thought some of them had their luggage and their minds already on the plane," said coach Doc Rivers. ''That was a fear before the game. Some of the guys really competed. Some didn't.
''And the turnovers just killed us. I thought some of the shot selection killed us, too. We took quick, bad shots and that allowed them to run."
In their only win of the trip, Saturday against the Clippers, the Celtics still had a defensive downturn of almost 12 minutes. That occurred in the third quarter, and it was in the third last night that they struggled. But this time they did not have a comfortable lead to play with. As a result, the Nuggets broke open the game and took a 93-78 advantage into the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets shot 67 percent and outscored the Celtics, 35-25, in the third period in large part because of Kenyon Martin and Andre Miller. Martin scored 11 of his 24 points in the quarter, and Miller recorded 7 of his 14 assists.
With the exception of a layup and three successful trips to the line, Martin did his damage from midrange. Three of his field goals resulted from Miller assists. But since both teams played little defense, the Nuggets' advantage fluctuated between single and double digits for most of the quarter until they closed the quarter with a 6-0 run.
Before the game, Denver coach George Karl called his team's fourth-quarter play ''wobbly," and indeed it was. The Nuggets led by as many as 23 points (108-85) but Boston closed within 11 (110-99) with a little more than three minutes left. With 2:46 remaining, though, Paul Pierce (29 points) fouled out, and all hope for a dramatic comeback was lost when he took a seat.
''Everything we threw at them, they just kept attacking," said Mark Blount (15 points). ''No. 15 [Carmelo Anthony, who had 23 points] is pretty good. Kenyon Martin also had a great game. I challenged him on every shot and he kept knocking down every one. We went to a small lineup and confused them a little, but they came out and did what they had to do."
In the first half, when the Celtics committed 10 turnovers (for 14 points), allowed the Nuggets to shoot 50 percent, and squandered an 8-point lead, there were probably moments when Rivers wished someone would escort him out of the arena, as security personnel did a rowdy fan wearing a Red Sox cap. No such luck.
But even playing the way they did in the three losses that started the trip, the Celtics trailed only 58-53 at the break.
The Nuggets went ahead for the first time in the second quarter after Davis committed the Celtics' fifth turnover and Earl Boykins turned it into a fast-break 3-pointer. Denver scored 8 of 16 first-half fast-break points off turnovers.
Denver staged a quick 5-0 run near the end of the half that gave it a 54-46 advantage with 2:16 left. Not surprisingly, Anthony capped the spurt with a 3-point play that resulted from another turnover by Davis. Delonte West (career-high 20 points) fouled Anthony as he swooped in for a layup.
By the end of the second quarter, the win against the Clippers was looking more like an aberration than a turning point.
''We had our chances in the first three games to win those games," said Pierce. ''[Last night], it just wasn't there."
While the Celtics voiced optimism before boarding the team bus for the airport, it was hard not to wonder whether it ever really will be there for this group.