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Nikola Jokic, Nuggets hold off late comeback to sweep Boston Celtics in regular-season series

If every game that involves clutch time is supposed to be a referendum on the Celtics’ championship aspirations, then they acted the part of a contender Thursday night against the NBA’s top clutch defense.

The defending champions prevailed nonetheless.

Nikola Jokic found Aaron Gordon for an alley-oop with 19.8 seconds remaining to double Denver’s late 113-109 lead, and the Nuggets held off a late rally for a 115-109 win over the team with the best record in the NBA.

Up two in the last minute, a Jamal Murray turnover turned into a Boston transition opportunity, but Jayson Tatum missed an open corner three for the lead. Then Jokic spun twice on his way to the basket and found his partner for one of Gordon’s seven dunks.

Jokic amassed 32 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and two steals. He made 11 of 18 shots after only attempting one in the first 10 minutes of the game. He turned it over only once. He returned in the fourth quarter after spending several minutes on the bench with his right arm in a wrap, the result of a Kristaps Porzingis foul in the third. He grabbed a contested rebound off Tatum’s late miss and connected with Gordon with the game on the line.

When he banked a buzzer-beater before halftime — Denver’s second shot at the horn in as many quarters — he turned to complain to an official while the Nuggets started toward the locker room. He had attempted eight free throws already but wanted more. As he followed his teammates down the tunnel, “M-V-P” chants followed him.

Jaylen Brown led all scorers with 42 points but was a costly 8 for 15 at the foul line. Porzingis added 24 points and 11 rebounds.

The Nuggets entered the matchup thinking if they could hold Boston’s inevitably high-volume 3-point shooting system to around 35% or worse, then they could walk away with a regular-season sweep. In Boston two months ago, the Celtics were 14 for 44 (32%). Anything in the same ballpark would be a success.

The first half exceeded expectations. While the Celtics forced Denver to live inside the arc by denying clean 3-point looks, they attempted twice as many 3s (16) but shot only 25% on them. Tatum was limited to eight points. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continued to be a formidable primary matchup. Then twice in a row out of a Joe Mazzulla timeout in the second quarter, Tatum hunted a Murray switch at the left elbow. The first try, Jokic helped over and picked Tatum’s pocket before he could find an open shooter. The next, Tatum tried to post up Murray, who held strong and caught a blow to the face. Two straight turnovers.

Brown and Murray traded baskets during an intriguing stint of second-unit minutes for both squads. Boston kept a double-big lineup of Xavier Tillman and Al Horford on the floor even with Jokic resting. Denver’s smaller, younger lineup held its own with solid moments from Zeke Nnaji at the five, Peyton Watson at the four and Christian Braun on the wing. Justin Holiday, back in the rotation after solid outings recently, guarded his brother Jrue a handful of possessions. Denver held the lead while Jokic sat.

But 58 seconds of second-half action were enough to remind the Nuggets of the 3-point shooting threat they faced. Porzingis drained two in a row to force a Michael Malone rage timeout at record speed. One Jaylen Brown drive later, it was tied at 62.

The timeout steadied the ship eventually, though. Boston tied it four times but never reclaimed a lead. The Nuggets kept making life difficult on Boston’s ball-handlers. They won an early challenge after Jokic pretended to tie his shoe, giving the bench extra time to examine a replay. And late in the third quarter, when they needed separation with more Jokic rest looming, Peyton Watson and Caldwell-Pope cashed consecutive momentous 3s. Caldwell-Pope’s was out of a Boston double-team on Jokic, who knew to pass to his blind-side corner anyway.

Watson showed off a smooth midrange stroke throughout the night as well, finishing with 11 points, four boards and a block. Boston finished 11 of 38 from beyond the arc.

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