By Associated Press
DENVER (AP) — The Denver Nuggets were glad to have Nikola Jokic back and even happier with the return of their defense.
Jokic had 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in his return to the lineup, and the Nuggets clamped down in the fourth quarter to beat the Boston Celtics 119-99 on Friday night.
Jokic played 27 minutes after missing two games because of illness. Wilson Chandler had 23 points and eight rebounds for the Nuggets, and Danilo Gallinari returned from sitting out Wednesday’s game with vertigo to score 20 points.
Jokic said he was feeling too sick to play against Sacramento and Washington earlier in the week, but by Friday morning he knew he was ready to go.
“When I woke up I felt a lot better than I did (Thursday) and two days ago,” he said. “When I stepped on the court at shootaround and started running and I see that I can do that I decided then (I could play).”
Denver increased its lead for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference to a full game over idle Portland after holding Boston to 42.5 percent shooting.
Isaiah Thomas had 21 points, Avery Bradley 16 and Al Horford 15 for the Celtics, who finished their road trip 2-3. Boston held Golden State to 86 points in Wednesday’s win but couldn’t contain the Nuggets, who never trailed.
“It was just one of those games,” Thomas said. “We just have to figure out how to be more consistent each and every night.”
Thomas has sparked plenty of fourth-quarter comebacks this season but the Nuggets, behind Jokic’s all-around game and offense from Chandler and Gallinari, built a big lead early and kept Thomas in check in the final 12 minutes. He had two points but attempted just one shot in the fourth while being shadowed by Gary Harris.
“Isaiah Thomas is a four-quarter guy, he leads the NBA in fourth-quarter points, and Gary did a great job on him,” Chandler said.
Boston fell behind by as many as 20 in the first half but rallied to trail by just 11 at the break. A 3-pointer by Bradley midway through the third period got the Celtics within 75-67 but Denver responded with an 11-4 run to make it 86-71.
“We knew they were going to try to make a run so we had to be locked in and ready to play,” Harris said.
Boston made one more run to get within nine on a three-point play by Jaylen Brown early in the fourth, but two 3-pointers by the Nuggets got the lead to 15 again and the Celtics never cut into the lead.
“We were slow to loose balls and we gave up a ton of rebounds,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Those are the type of things that you have to do to get back in it or to stay in it from the get go.”