DENVER — After letting a 20-point lead evaporate, the Celtics overcame a 6-point fourth-quarter deficit and held on for a 111-110 win over the Nuggets on Monday after surviving a wild finish.
The Celtics led, 108-102, with less than two minutes left and appeared in control. But the Nuggets went on a 6-0 run that was capped by Jamal Murray’s leaner that tied the score at 108 with 43 seconds remaining.
BOX SCORE: CELTICS 111, NUGGETS 110
After a timeout, Al Horford appeared to have an open lane to the basket. But instead he drove and kicked the ball to Jaylen Brown in the left corner. Brown, who had missed all four of his 3-point attempts, rattled this one in to give Boston a 111-108 lead with 33.3 seconds left.
Murray then converted a quick layup to pull Denver within 1 with 28.1 seconds left.
The Celtics let the shot clock run down before Irving lofted an 8-footer that rimmed out with four seconds left. Will Barton raced the other way and fired a 3-pointer that was an airball. Trey Lyles grabbed the miss, alley-oop style, and laid it in, but his attempt came after the final buzzer, allowing the Celtics to escape with the win.
Irving had 27 points and six assists to lead the Celtics. Jayson Tatum, who had been in a bit of a slump, made 8 of 13 shots and had 20 points. Boston made 17 of 37 3-pointers overall, including a 10 for 18 effort from its bench.
Irving was coming off of one of his best offensive performances of the season in Saturday’s loss to Golden State, and he carried that rhythm into the first half Monday.
Midway through the first quarter he drilled his first two 3-pointers of the game, and scored inside after making a smooth fake.
Tatum, meanwhile, was coming off one of his worst offensive games of the year. The rookie has been in a slump this month, and Monday he passed up a couple of open shots early.
Then with 2:08 left in the first quarter he converted an acrobatic driving layup. That appeared to give his confidence a boost, as he hit his next three shots, including a pair of 3-pointers.
The Celtics made 7 of 11 threes in the first quarter while the Nuggets were just 8 for 23 overall and committed five turnovers.
Boston has struggled of offense this season when Irving and Horford are on the bench. But during one six-minute stretch without them that started in the first quarter and stretched into the start of the second, Boston extended an 18-15 lead to 36-24.
The Celtics continued to pour in 3-pointers, even getting contributions from some unlikely sources, as Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye combined to make three of them in the first half. One long-range shot by Theis with 6:23 left gave Boston its largest lead, 49-29.
Denver fought back by attacking the basket, however, and pulled within 56-45 at halftime after Boston’s long-range shooting cooled.
The Celtics defense has been consistently elite this season, but in the third quarter some rare holes became visible.
Nuggets center Mason Plumlee scored a total of four dunks and layups in the first five minutes of the quarter as Denver found opportunities inside with little resistance.
For the Celtics, much of the third-quarter offense went through center Aron Baynes, one of their least potent offensive weapons. Baynes took six shots in the first seven minutes.
With 4:10 left, Murray hit a 3 to give Denver a 69-68 lead, its first since 12-10. Denver outscored the Celtics, 37-24, in the quarter, and took an 82-80 lead to the fourth.
Denver took its largest lead, 88-82, on a Lyles 3 with 10:29 left, but the Celtics charged back behind more long-distance shooting from improbable sources, as Theis and Ojeleye hit back-to-back 3-pointers to spark a 12-3 run.