Friday night’s Nuggets-Celtics game lived up to the hype as a possible NBA Finals preview, with both teams exchanging the lead 13 times before Denver earned a 102-100 win.
If Friday was just a sampling of what might come in June, Celtics star big man Kristaps Porzingis prognosticated what might happen between the two teams.
“If we see them in the postseason, then it’s going to be a big chess match,” Porzingis told reporters.
Porzingis was a key piece early on in Friday’s chess match for the Celtics, scoring their first 11 points as he was heavily involved in setting screens to get open looks from beyond the arc and good shots near the rim. He added four more points at the free-throw line in the first quarter as a result of the Celtics seeking mismatches for him, too.
But Porzingis didn’t get many shots up following his opening-quarter outburst of 15 points. He only put up six more shots in the final three quarters, scoring just six points. The Celtics’ offense hit a wall in the second half as well, putting up a measly 39 points on 38.1 percent shooting.
Porzingis wasn’t upset about his lack of shot attempts though as the game progressed. Rather, he was disappointed that he didn’t take advantage of the opportunities he had. He also wished he was more aggressive after the Nuggets took Nikola Jokic off him and put Aaron Gordon and smaller players on him.
“We didn’t force it,” Porzingis said. “I had two post-ups, missed both that are good looks for me. It’s probably different if I make just one of those, maybe we go back two more times. I’m there, ready. I love punishing these guys because we create a mismatch. If Joker is guarding me, then I get those pops and I shoot 3s, and they rotate and we make the next play, but if they put a guard on me, I want to make them pay.
“Probably, there were situations where I could’ve done a better job finding that moment to duck in and be aggressive. I’m ready if that’s what we need as a team.”
Despite the second-half scoring woes, Porzingis and Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla were encouraged by their offensive performance Friday. Porzingis felt the Celtics did a good job of swinging the ball around and making Jokic have to run to closeout shots. Mazzulla, meanwhile, shared a couple of tweaks the Celtics could’ve made.
“I thought we got at the rim at will,” The Celtics coach said. “I thought we had some kick-out 3s, could probably get KP a couple more post-ups, but they put a small on him and they put both bigs behind, so they were able to crowd the paint a little bit.”
The Celtics’ 3-point approach failed them on Friday. They shot just 14 of 44 from behind the arc (31.8 percent) while the Nuggets weren’t as reliant on their 3-point shooting, with only 31 of their 81 attempts coming from deep. As a result, Denver shot 51.9 percent from the floor.
Jokic led the way, scoring 34 points on 14 of 22 shooting as the Celtics had trouble slowing down the big man near the rim.
“He’s the best player in the world and he’s just so crafty,” Porzingis told reporters of Jokic. “Just kind of almost makes you fall asleep like he’s not doing anything and just slides by you. He has so many tricks and so many things that he can do, and then making so many tough shots that are not really tough for him.”
Following Friday’s loss, the Celtics still hold the league’s best record at 32-10. Porzingis believes that falling to the defending champs can serve a stepping stone moment for this Celtics team and where they want to go.
“I love this even though we lost, it was a great game for us,” Porzingis said. “There are many things that we’re going to look at, and we can study those things. This is a real thing. This is last year’s champs and that’s where we want to be.
“There’s definitely, I think from our side, their side, fans, everybody just kind of knew it was a big matchup and there’s definitely things to take away from this.”
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