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CELTICS 119, NUGGETS 114

Celtics hit on all cylinders

Tony Allen drives to the basket for 2 of his career-high 30 points. Tony Allen drives to the basket for 2 of his career-high 30 points. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

Four straight wins? Tied for the division lead, once again? A victory over a team with a winning record? A where-did-that-come-from, wire-to-wire submission from, ahem, Tony Allen?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. The Celtics held off the Denver Nuggets, 119-114, last night, getting the type of performances from young and old alike that make Danny Ainge's vision look like an Arizona desert sunset. The Celtics haven't had a run like this since the days of Antoine Walker (redux) and Gary Payton, but the victories now have them back at the top of the pathetic Atlantic Division, tied with New Jersey at 9-13. The Raptors are a half-game behind.

Paul Pierce, who loves to torch George Karl-coached teams (it goes back to their not-so-chummy days in Indianapolis at the Worlds in 2002) led the way with 38 points, but it was the play of Allen and Al Jefferson that had the 15,607 salivating in their seats. Allen, who earlier this season was fighting for time off the bench, went the full 48 (the first Celtic to do so this season) and was electrifying at times, delivering a career-high 30 points along with 8 rebounds and 3 steals. He also spent most of those 48 minutes staring at the menacing Carmelo Anthony, who had a season-high 42 points (and should have had more, but missed six free throws.)

Afterward, coach Doc Rivers went up to Allen and said, "the guy scored 42, shot over 50 percent, and you did an amazing job guarding him." He said he never considered taking Allen out, in part because, "I really didn't see anybody else guarding Carmelo."

Allen even made two 3-pointers; he had made one coming into the game. He made his first eight shots and finished 11 of 13 from the field. There were a couple of obligatory jams, a pair of momentum-breaking 3-point plays, and even a blocked shot in a filling-up-the-stat sheet submission. "Obviously," Rivers said matter-of-factly, "Tony was phenomenal."

Then there was Jefferson, who had another monster game with 28 points and 10 rebounds in a season-high 42 minutes. He was virtually unstoppable inside (13 of 19) and had more than one Nugget shaking his head after taking the ball out of the basket. He was the physical, aggressive Jefferson that Rivers wants and, not coincidentally, the player who doesn't commit cheap fouls and thus can stay in the game.

"That's key for him," Pierce said. "He stays out of foul trouble and he's playing with confidence."

Throw that in with 56 percent shooting and a season-high 33 assists and you have an evening in which the offense worked in part because the Nuggets' defense is utterly atrocious.

Asked what bothered him most about the game, Karl said, "Not covering anybody. Trying to outscore people."

That about sums it up. Boston never trailed and had the lead in double digits from midway in the first quarter to early in the fourth, until a late Denver rally made things interesting.

A 19-point, third-quarter lead had been trimmed to 11 at the end of three. Denver gradually whittled away in the fourth, eventually pulling to within 94-91 on a layup by Andre Miller with 6:03 to play. Pierce then got Marcus Camby (11 points, 7 rebounds) on a blocking foul and made two free throws. (He was 10 of 11 from the line.) Another free throw by Pierce (after the Celtics basically stole the ball off a jump between Sebastian Telfair and Anthony) made it 97-91 and, after a Miller layup, there were two plays that point to the boundless optimism that so many have for this group.

The first came from Big Al. Telfair wormed his way into the lane for a banker, which Camby contested, coming from the weak side. He makes a living doing that, but he didn't get the block. No one blocked out Jefferson, who picked the rebound off the glass and jammed it back through. On the next possession, Allen stole an Earl Boykins pass and was off to the races for an uncontested dunk.

The lead was now back to a more comfortable 8 points and Denver did not threaten again. A few improbable late bombs, most of them from the previously invisible J.R. Smith, cut a 12-point deficit (114-102 with 42.2 seconds left) to 3 with 2.5 seconds remaining, but it was never really a one-possession game over the final six minutes.

Afterward, Rivers called the victory "a helluva win" and no one could dispute that. As he noted, "once you feel good about yourself, you can win any game."

And these guys left for Charlotte last night feeling very, very good about themselves.

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