Coach Doc Rivers knew the Celtics were running too hard just trying to catch up.
For two straight games, they had allowed their opponents to stretch a lead, but when the Raptors and Hawks went ahead by 16 points, the Celtics scrambled back to win. Last night, the Denver Nuggets moved in front by 15 points in the middle of the third quarter, and this time the Celtics couldn't reel them in. Boston closed the gap in the fourth, tying the game at 82-82 and 84-84, but playing in spurts wasn't enough and the Nuggets held on to claim a 94-85 victory.
The Celtics, who have played seven games in 11 days, had a six-game win streak snapped but dismissed the busy schedule as an excuse. The erratic pattern of their play was the problem.
"It's going to catch you at some point," said Rivers. "It just has to. I don't care how good you think you are. If you're going to play with fire, eventually you're going to get burned, and that happened tonight for us.
"But we have things that we have to fix. There's things as a group that we have to get better and then individuals have to get better as well."
The Celtics had a bright 8-0 start, Paul Pierce connecting for a 3-pointer and a jumper and Ray Allen adding a jumper and free throw. But that was the end of the smooth ride. Allen finished the first quarter with 18 points, including three treys, and the team shot 55 percent in taking a 29-23 lead, but then the offense started to wobble. The Celtics managed only 13 points in the second quarter while the Nuggets, under the command of former Celtic Chauncey Billups, took off on a 19-4 run and led at the half, 48-42.
"Tonight I just felt like we were a step slow to our rotations," said Kevin Garnett, who had 16 points on 7-for-14 shooting. "I thought we started the game the first three minutes pretty well, but just never got into a real solid flow."
The Nuggets knew the Celtics had been allowing big leads, against Atlanta and Toronto and at Milwaukee four games ago, when they came back from a 13-point deficit to win.
"At halftime we talked," said Denver coach George Karl. "They've been in this position in three of their last four games and they come out with extra aggressiveness, sometimes to the point where it looks like they are fouling a lot and beating you up. I feel like offensively we catered to them a little bit in the third quarter with our shot selection. I think the fourth quarter may be as well as we can play on the road, where we have to turn the volume back up."
The Celtics forced their way back into the game in the third quarter led by Pierce's 12 points, taking a 65-64 lead on an Eddie House 3-pointer. But in a back-and-forth fourth, the Celtics fell back while the Nuggets went forth.
"We took them lightly," said Kendrick Perkins. "I don't think we respected our opponent. We started out good but we all made mistakes."
Billups sparked the winning surge, feeding Kenyon Martin for a running jump shot, then sinking a layup and a free throw before passing off to Carmelo Anthony for a 3-pointer. Billups, fouled by Allen, sank a pair of free throws to put the game out of reach at 94-84 with 1:22 to play.
"We have to be prepared a little bit better, with teams coming at us from the jump," said Pierce. "We came out from the start of the game for the first three minutes and from then on, we played in spurts."
The NBA champions boast an 8-2 record, but Rivers pointed out how much work they face.
"We're the most miserable 8-2 team I've ever seen," said Rivers. "Because we're not happy with the way we're playing. We're winning games but we're not playing well enough to be the winner. We get that."