Jayson Tatum off mark in clutch as Celtics fall to Nuggets

Jayson Tatum off mark in clutch as Celtics fall to Nuggets

DENVER — For the second time this week — and for the second time this season against the Denver NuggetsJayson Tatum had the ball in his hands with a chance to put the Boston Celtics ahead in the closing seconds.

Once again, Tatum didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

With the Celtics down by two, Tatum missed a wide-open corner 3-pointer with 45 seconds to go, capping an ugly performance on what turned out to be Boston’s final chance to take the lead. After the miss, Nikola Jokic finished a 32-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist triple-double with a lob to Aaron Gordon for a dunk that extended Denver’s lead in its 115-109 victory.

“That corner 3, it was a good shot,” Tatum said. “I thought it was going in. We had some opportunities.”

That Boston (48-14) even had a chance to win was remarkable given how listless Tatum was throughout. He finished with 15 points on 5-for-13 shooting to go along with 4 rebounds and 8 assists. In addition to the wide-open missed 3, Tatum had a couple of crucial turnovers in transition in the fourth quarter, made several passive drives to the rim and was generally not as involved as he normally is.

“I think with the dynamic of our team, when other guys kind of got it going in a rhythm, in a flow … you got to space the floor,” Tatum said when asked about his performance. “We always talk about respecting other people’s space. If that calls for being in the corner or passing them the ball, that’s what we’re trying to do on that possession. You got to honor that.”

The Celtics stayed in the game thanks to a sensational performance from Jaylen Brown, who had 41 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in 41 minutes. But they repeatedly cost themselves with sloppy play, giving the Nuggets (43-20) a 16-6 edge in points off turnovers, and finished 11-for-38 (28.9%) from 3-point range.

“Just too many mistakes,” Brown said. “Against a good team, we got to take advantage. Turnovers, free throws, just missing the defensive assignments, all of that stuff, we got to be better at.

“And that starts with me, it starts at the top, starts with Jayson. … We made too many mistakes, and it cost us the game.”

The Nuggets were ruthless in exploiting those mistakes, particularly Jokic, who had a second straight masterful performance against Boston. His 32-point triple-double Thursday night came after he had 34 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists in Denver’s win in Boston in January.

Jokic repeatedly found himself in single coverage against Kristaps Porzingis and used his size and strength to bully himself down to the basket for easy buckets. When Boston brought a double-team, Jokic would often respond by hitting Gordon for lob dunks, including the one that ended Boston’s comeback hopes with 19 seconds to go.

“He’s the center that I’ve always, the player that I’ve always dreamed of playing with,” Gordon said of Jokic afterward. “He’s someone that sees the floor, someone that is super unselfish. And I think he likes just the fact that he can just throw it anywhere and I’ll go get it.”

Porzingis said he learned some things about guarding Jokic that he’ll take into their next encounter — one the Celtics hope could be in the NBA Finals.

“He was definitely in his bag tonight,” said Porzingis, who finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds. “He’s just an incredible basketball player. Some things I learned from him today, actually. He’s just so smart, so crafty, so many things that you don’t see that he does on the floor that helps that team win. It’s incredible.”

Like the first meeting between these teams, Thursday’s game had a playoff atmosphere, as both teams played their starters heavy minutes. That first game was played in a raucous but very one-sided TD Garden, and Thursday’s game at Denver’s Ball Arena still featured more than a few Celtics fans in the crowd.

That allowed Nuggets coach Michael Malone to repeat a line that he has used in the past.

“You have to give the Celtics fans some credit,” he said. “They always come out strong. But you know what we say, right? They can take that L on the way out, baby.”

The Celtics lost their second game in a row after a disappointing collapse against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday, one that saw Tatum miss a potential game-winning jumper in the closing seconds.

Boston hasn’t played its best in its two games against Denver, shooting a combined 25-for-82 (30.4%) from 3-point range. Tatum has shot 14-for-37 (37.8%) in those games.

But after coming up short in both of their cracks at the defending champions, the universal message from the Celtics was that for things to change in a potential NBA Finals series in June, they’ll simply have to be better.

“That’s a really good team over there,” Tatum said. “Well coached. They make the right plays more often than not, and you got to beat them. You can’t depend on them to beat themselves. They’re just a really good ballclub over there.”

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