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Celtics 105, Nuggets 89

Celtics take a little cruise

Without Anthony, Denver no threat

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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Doc Rivers remembered how things shook down the last time a Western Conference team came into TD Garden and scratched its superstar minutes before the game.

Oklahoma City sat out Kevin Durant Nov. 19, the Celtics kicked their feet up, and the next thing they knew the Thunder had walked out with a 89-84 win, thanks to Russell Westbrook’s 31-point ambush.

Last night, late word came down that the Nuggets were going to sit Carmelo Anthony because of a right knee inflammation, and Rivers tried two coaching methods.

First, he lied. He had top assistant Lawrence Frank go over the defensive strategy as if Anthony were still in the lineup.

“I think he waited to the very last second to tell us that Carmelo wasn’t playing,’’ said Paul Pierce. “He went over the game plan, so we took it to heart.’’

Then, Rivers used scare tactics. When he finally told his team the Nuggets were without their biggest weapon, he made sure to add, “Listen, the last time he didn’t play, I think they scored 135 points.’’

The Celtics responded by immediately running up a double-digit lead, holding the Nuggets to 38.1 percent shooting and pushing their advantage to as many as 19 points before closing the first quarter up, 35-21. And even though the Nuggets ate away at the deficit, the Celtics’ 105-89 win was as matter-of-fact as any victory this season.

The Celtics denied Nuggets coach George Karl his 1,000th career win, and improved to 17-4.

Ray Allen dropped 28 points, his biggest night in nearly a month. He had 12 points and drained all three of his 3-pointers in the first quarter, when the first unit was digging a ditch for the shorthanded Nuggets.

Kevin Garnett came within a rebound of his 11th double-double of the season, going for 17 points and nine boards, hitting 8 of 9 shots from the floor. Fighting off a fever, Glen Davis scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds after sitting out Tuesday’s practice.

But the Celtics’ defense was at the center of it all, forcing the Nuggets to miss 45 of their 78 shots.

“They’re a running team, but we got stops,’’ said Rivers. “We were able to run, get easy baskets, and then we were able to set our defense. So that was the plan.’’

They suffocated the Nuggets’ starters, as Arron Afflalo maxed out at 16 points. Ty Lawson led Denver with 24 off the bench.

The Celtics ran their winning streak to eight games, and during that stretch they’ve held teams to a paltry 88.5 points a night. Five of the wins have come by double-digit margins.

The turning point was an embarrassing loss Nov. 21 in Toronto, where the defense dozed off and let the Raptors steal a win in the final seconds. They took their frustrations out on Atlanta the next night, and have locked down ever since.

“I can say Atlanta was probably the first game I remember where we were talking, and if you were three, four rows in the front you could hear us,’’ Garnett said. “I think we’ve been using that game as a road map for how we need to be defensively. Doc put us back into that mentality.’’

The Nuggets chopped the deficit to 4 points in the second quarter, but even with the game within two posessions, they were always at arm’s length — and the Celtics’ arms seemed miles long. Boston never had to worry about losing momentum because Denver’s momentum changer was in street clothes.

“It’s a different mind-set,’’ said Pierce. “You play against Carmelo, you’ve always got to be on your toes. The difference with guarding Gary Forbes is that I become more of a roamer and more of a helper. So, the defensive scheme sort of changes with Carmelo out. Kevin’s got to do a lot less helping, things change when their primary scorer isn’t in there.

Even though Anthony wasn’t on the floor when the game was close, Rivers started to sweat, knowing that J.R. Smith (16 points) or Lawson could heat up at any moment.

“Those wild cards, we let those two get going and then when the starters came back in they couldn’t shut them off, either,’’ Rivers said. “You pour kerosene on people, set them on fire, and then you tell the other guy, ‘Hey, put it out for me.’ That’s how it felt.’’

He knew that leading scorer or not, there was a reason to be nervous, which was why he had to play the pregame mind tricks.

“For me, that 7- or 9-point game is an uncomfortable game against that team because J.R. Smith or Chauncey [Billups] will come down and make three threes and then all of a sudden the game is tight,’’ Rivers said. “But once we got it to 15 or 16, I was comfortable.’’

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