The Celtics aren't one of those NBA teams that will give you a second chance. Show them just one weakness, and they'll ram it down your throat like castor oil.
The Denver Nuggets didn't like the medicine the Celtics spooned out in a 123-100 rout at Boston Garden last night. Everything was going well for the Nuggets until the Celtics broke from a 71-71 tie in the third quarter with 10 straight points, and then finished them off with the kind defensive pressure they don't see very often in the Western Conference.
For 2 1/2 quarters the Nuggets seemed perfectly at home playing the so- called Eastern style of bruising basketball. Alex English had 16 points, one less than Boston's Kevin McHale, in a first half that ended with the score tied at 63. Only a late spurt by Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson in the second period enabled Boston to stay close.
For a few minutes in the third quarter, it seemed the second half would be conducted at the same level, which approached play-off intensity. But then the Celtics' halftime adjustment to Denver's motion offense began to pay dividends. The Nuggets went icy cold in the period (6 for 25) and scored only seven more points in the period after Calvin Natt tied the score at 71 with 9:03 left.
"We disintegrated," said coach Doug Moe. "We've done it against other teams, but not against teams as good as Boston."
The adjustment was basic as Mom's apple pie. Denver's quickness was leaving the Celtic defense flatfooted. The answer was to become as aggressive as the Nuggets had been. Once the Celtics made their move, Denver had no answer.
The Nuggets got only 15 points in the third quarter and trailed, 91-78. They were no better in the fourth quarter as the Celtics completed the demolition of a team that had beaten the Lakers and Rockets twice this season and had road victories in Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
"Our defense was the key," said Danny Ainge, back in the starting lineup last night for the first time in seven games. "We adjusted and had all five guys out picking up his man and playing aggressively. That is when we got our fastbreak going, and that's when we stopped them. We made them take a lot of outside shots, and tonight those shots weren't falling. They're a team that looks to put the ball on the floor and take advantage of one-on-one opportunities. In the second half we did a great job of helping each other out."
Actually, the demolition job started in the second period. Coach K.C. Jones seemingly gambled by resting his regulars in favor of the so-called Green Team, led by Bill Walton. Denver didn't fold but the regulars obviously learned something from sitting on the bench.
When they came back in the third period, it was only a matter of time before Denver cracked. But it happened faster than anticipated as Boston controlled the backboards in the third period (17-12) on their way to a game margin of 57-44.
Walton, who scored only two points, was a catalyst in many ways. He played 15 minutes and gave Robert Parish some rest. He had 10 rebounds and sparked Celtic fast breaks with long outlet passes.
"Big Bill was there to get the rebounds," said Ainge, "and fire the outlet pass to get us some easy baskets the other way."
Moe said he was not surprised that his club lost last night. The Nuggets have fallen apart before, but not against a club as good as Boston.
Sometimes, you have to hit on all cylinders," he said, "and do it for 48 minutes. If you're going to disintegrate, do it fully like we did tonight."
The disintegration of the Nuggets, who had won four in a row, began in the first half. They were scoring and moving the ball in classic fashion. But they couldn't stop McHale, who led the Celtics with 33 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
McHale scored 17 points in the first half, hitting 7 of 9 shots. Denver had no answer for his long arms, or his awkward but effect lunges to the basket inside.
"McHale amazes me," said English. "He's gotten much better in recent years. He's good defensively because with those long arms he can lay off you."
McHale said it was strength against strength. This time Boston's inside game was better than Denver's outside game. Denver guards Mike Evans, Lafayette Lever, Elston Turner and T.R. Dunn shot a combined 14-37.
"With all that movement and stuff," said McHale, "you need an adjustment period. They get you lost. Guys are running into each other on defense. They have so much movement, unlike any other team in the NBA.
"When you figure out what they doing, it's easier. They have quickness, we have size."
Size has its advantages, added Parish. "We were playing tight defense and they were able to cut to the advantage," he said. " But when we played a little looser, we were able to take it away. They're quicker than we are, but we have a height advantage and try to take advantage of that."