NUGGETS TOUGH; CELTICS ARE TOUGHER, 136-128
Believe this: had the Celtics not met offensive fire with offensive fire, not met a determined effort with a determined effort and not been a superior professional basketball team, they would have been staring at the possibility of their first two-game losing streak of the season when they head down to Madison Square Garden tomorrow afternoon.
The Denver Nuggets came here to play basketball, not to walk around Quincy Market. Coach Doug Moe came here to win, not to pay homage to the Celtics. And so, before a capacity crowd of 15,320 Celtic worshippers they threw a tremendous scare into the home team last night before succumbing by a 136-128 score.
The final tally explains succinctly what kind of a game it was. The Nuggets can fill it up, and they can pound the offensive boards. Utilizing Alex English's spring and Dan Issel's guile, they came up with an astounding 33 points on second shots. Every time the Celtics threatened to pull away, Denver fought back. Moe never sat down - not once - and he coached a brilliant ball game, substituting intelligently, getting on the officials in just the right manner and continually exhorting his players. Denver stayed close, ultimately, because Doug Moe was not going to give up. His was a truly professional performance.
The spunky Nuggets, who had trailed by 11 (85-74) with 3:48 left in the third period and had come back within three (114-111), displayed supreme moxie by rallying from a 130-119 deficit with 1:42 remaining to a situation of minus-five (130-125), and possession of the basketball, with 34 seconds to play. A three-pointer and a two-pointer was certainly not too much to ask for in a game containing 264 points.
Denver had come back on four English free throws, the second two courtesy of an ill-advised Robert Parish loose ball foul, and, finally, an Issel follow-up of an English air ball, two of the cagey veteran's 14 points on the offensive boards. Included in here was a brilliant Glen Gondrezick steal of a Tiny Archibald-to-Rick Robey pick-and roll pass with Boston leading by a 130-121 score.
But at the key moment the Nuggets made the type of mistake that plagues have-not teams. Gondrezick was forced to eat the basketball on an in-bounds from midcourt, resulting in a five-second in-bounds violation called by referee John Vanak. "And John gave Gondo the benefit of the doubt," claimed Bill Fitch. "I counted to six."
The Celtics were able to make the visitors pay for this egregious team sin when Cedric Maxwell (a season-high 29) was fouled en route to the basket with 14 seconds to play. He dropped in both shots to give Boston a 132-125 lead that would first be reduced via Kenny Higgs' desperation three-pointer and then be restored by a Gerald Henderson sneakaway at the buzzer.
Denver demonstrated immediately what was in store for the Celtics when T.R. Dunn out-wrestled Larry Bird for the opening tap and went in to score six seconds into the game. The Celtics learned quickly they would have to something more than just show up if they wished to stretch their winning streak to eight.
"They kept the pressure on us the whole game," said Bird (27, on 13-for-19 shooting). "I don't think any team we've played all year has kept pressure on us like that."
The remarkable aspect of Denver's classy performance was that they did it with minimal help from David Thompson, who played a drab 23 minutes after complaining of illness prior to the game. Some of his usual offensive punch came from sources such as Dunn (a season-high 16) and newcomer Billy Mckinney (10, on 5-for-8 marksmanship).
It was 32-31, Boston after one period and 64-63, Denver at the half. But the Celtics had been trailing by nine (60-51) with exactly three minutes left, or until the intimidation of Parish (six blocks, and who-knows-how-many rerouting jobs) and the hustle of Maxwell ignited a 12-2 run culminating in a Bird 17-footer with 14 seconds to play. English, however, sent Denver into the locker room happy with a tap-in two seconds ahead of the buzzer.
A grim Celtic team came out sizzling in the second half. Two long jumpers by Bird kicked off a 12-0 blast (making it a 20-2 overlap run) that gave the Celtics a 75-64 lead and apparent momentum. But the Moemen chipped away over the long haul, until a Thompson jumper with 6:23 left pulled them within three at 114-111.
Ah, but Henderson came right back with two fast break free throws and Higgs contributed an in-bounds turnover, to which was affixed two Maxwell foul shots. Thompson then bounced a pass off a surprised Issel's hands instead of taking an acceptable 13-footer, and Maxwell wound up sinking two more foul shots at the other end. None of this was particularly dramatic, but it sure as hell was damaging, and it left Boston leading by a 120-111 score with 4:51 to go.
Laugh at the score, if you will, but the Celtics had no choice but to go along with the program. Denver came in and played in-your-face basketball. If the Celtics were any less macho themselves, they'd be 25-9 today instead of 26-8.