Celtics

Jayson Tatum wins battle between MVP candidates: 7 takeaways as Celtics beat Nuggets

Jaylen Brown was nearly perfect, plus more takeaways.

Celtics Nuggets
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope defends against Jaylen Brown during the first half of an NBA basketball game. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

The Celtics passed a test against a tough Western Conference opponent with flying colors on Friday, defeating the Nuggets 131-112.

Here’s what happened.

The Big Picture

The Celtics started hot and built a double-digit lead in the first quarter as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum started their big nights with 12 and 10 points in the period respectively. The Celtics’ lead ballooned as high as 18 in the second quarter, although the Nuggets cut it back down to 66-57 going into the halftime locker room.

Led by reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets kept cutting into the deficit in the third, and a flurry of 3-pointers by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — the NBA’s leading 3-point shooter by percentage in the early going — trimmed the lead back down to one, but the Celtics recorded a 9-2 run that pushed the advantage back to 97-91 going into the fourth quarter.

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Despite their third-quarter flurry, the Nuggets didn’t have answers down the stretch for the Celtics’ offense, and they seemed to unravel as the Celtics continued to pull away. Both teams emptied their benches in the closing minutes as the Celtics cruised to a win.

Star of the Game

Jaylen Brown: 25 points, 11-for-15 shooting, eight rebounds, eight assists

Tatum was excellent as well, but Brown made his first 10 shots and finished with one of his more balanced lines of the season. Importantly, he dished out eight assists and committed three turnovers — a much better ratio than his season average to date.

What It Means

The Celtics’ offense continues to absolutely annihilate teams with any holes in their defense whatsoever.

Meanwhile, if you’re scoreboard-watching after 12 games — which, don’t, that’s crazy — the Celtics were tied with the Cavaliers at 8-3 entering Friday’s games. The Cavaliers played the Warriors in San Francisco in a late Friday game.

Takeaways

1. Tatum finished a couple of impressive layups, including this all-the-way-behind-the-back dribble move in transition. It’s unclear whether the move actually fooled Jamal Murray, but Tatum keeps dipping into his bag for new moves, and this could be a fun one as teams increasingly learn to respect his passing.

If you squint, you can see shades of Rajon Rondo (although Rondo’s was unquestionably smoother).

“He peeked though,” NBC Sports Boston’s Mike Gorman quipped on the broadcast.

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Tatum finished with 34 points on 11-for-21 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists, and he made 10 of his 11 free-throw attempts. A reporter asked him if his ability to get to the line was the last missing piece of his game.

“Last piece kind of sounds like I’ve got it figured out,” Tatum said. “And far from it. Still only 24. Just trying to make the game easier for myself, and then ultimately easier for my teammates.”

Tatum might not have it all figured out, but he’s figured out a lot. His MVP case continues to build.

2. Grant Williams started once again and continues to ingratiate himself with the starting unit. On Friday, he finished 5-for-8 and 2-for-5 from three with 13 points.

“I just like what we’re able to do from a defensive standpoint in that,” Joe Mazzulla told reporters before the game. “I think it gives us a good chance to get off to a good start defensively. Just with our depth, you have to have different looks, and I kind of like starting with that look.”

Defense isn’t all Williams brings to the lineup, of course — per Synergy Sports, he scores 1.4 points per possession, which is third-best in the NBA. No. 1? You guessed it: Sam Hauser at a staggering 1.61.

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3. The Celtics’ bench always seems to find a way to contribute. On Friday, the Celtics needed a boost from Payton Pritchard with Marcus Smart in foul trouble for much of the evening and Malcolm Brogdon still sidelined with a tight right hamstring. Pritchard buried a tough mid-range jumper on his first possession and finished with 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting, and he pulled down seven rebounds including four offensive boards, three of which came on this possession.

Brown called Pritchard “my guy” and said he really respect him, comparing him to Pelicans guard Jose Alvarado, who has perfected the sneak-up-and-steal-it play in the backcourt.

Still: “It worked out for us, but Payton needs to get his ass back on defense,” Brown added.

Luke Kornet, meanwhile, was a little more aggressive offensively and posted eight points and seven rebounds. He dropped in a nice baby hook, as well as this reverse dunk nobody saw coming.

Kornet in particular is in a position to lose minutes when Robert Williams returns. He needs to continue to be a little more aggressive offensively to earn spot-rotation minutes.

4. Nikola Jokic is in a rare class of player for whom the Celtics don’t really have a defensive matchup. Grant Williams and Al Horford can defend so many different types of players — from Ja Morant to Cade Cunningham to Giannis Antetokounmpo to Joel Embiid to Kevin Durant — but Jokic is simply too big and too talented.

Still, Jokic finished with just three assists and was -14 in his minutes. The loss certainly wasn’t his fault — he and Caldwell-Pope backpacked the Nuggets back into the game in the third quarter — but they needed a lot more from him to win.

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“He’s a great player, and he can affect the game in a lot of different ways,” Mazzulla said. “But I thought we did a great job limiting his assists and his playmaking.”

Jokic carries a heavy load in Denver.

5. Horford has been on a heater as a shooter — he had made 13 of 14 shots in his last two games prior to Friday, and he shot 7-for-12 from the floor (6-for-8 from three) en route to 21 points.

So far this season, 3-pointers have made up 58 percent of Horford’s shots — a career-high by a significant margin, and something that will help both the Celtics as they space the floor and Horford as he tries to extend his career deep into his 30s.

“It’s been a big adjustment,” Horford said. “This summer, that’s something that we looked at and I understood that I needed to work on that even more. Be more comfortable and we really worked at it this summer. Mentally, I’m getting in that mindset of understanding that I’m shooting more 3s. That’s just the way it is. The game continues to change and for me, it’s trying to find a way that I can change, too.”

6. On Wednesday, Brown noted that he has been playing without the ball in his hands this season, which was a struggle.

On Friday, the Celtics entrusted with more distribution duties, and Brown appreciated it.

“Tonight I got to be more of a playmaker, play with the ball in my hands,” Brown said. “I just wanted to make the right reads and right decisions, and take that responsibility serious. Hopefully, I can continue to do that (going) forward because I think I can help this team.”

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7. Rookie two-way guard J.D. Davison got his first minutes as a professional in garbage time and recorded both a rebound and an assist on a lob to Kornet. He would have had two assists if only Hauser had knocked down a wide open 3-pointer. Next time, rookie.

The Celtics hit the road and will face the Pistons in Detroit on Saturday.

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