DENVER — About 30 minutes after the final buzzer sounded just in the nick of time, Al Horford exhaled in the Boston Celtics locker room. He had been excited this weekend about the improvements his team showed during a loss to the Golden State Warriors, but badly wanted the Celtics to finish their four-game road trip in the win column.

“I’m just happy,” Horford said after escaping the Denver Nuggets, 111-110.

The Celtics barely survived. They lost a 20-point lead, fell behind by six points in the fourth quarter, and needed big plays from a host of guys – not least among them Kyrie Irving – to regain the advantage. Even then, they gave the Nuggets one last chance in the final seconds.

After Denver Coach Mike Malone declined to call timeout, Will Barton missed a long 3-pointer and Torrey Craig didn’t quite shoot a putback bucket in time.

“I’m just happy because we played a great first half,” Horford said. “They came back and hit us in the mouth. I’ve been in this position before in this arena, and they usually make a run and find a way to win. I’m just happy it turned in our favor this time.”


After allowing the Nuggets to score six unanswered points, the Celtics took possession with a 108-108 tie. They didn’t run anything complicated, but a high pick-and-roll with Irving and Horford forced the Nuggets into a difficult situation.

When two guys followed Irving, he snapped a pass over to Horford. Denver’s Nikola Jokic, not the swiftest big man, tried to close out, but needed to cover a lot of ground because Irving had dragged him out to the other side of the court. Noticing that, Horford hesitated for a brief fake before driving by Jokic toward the middle of the court.

“I popped a couple times and shot the ball,” Horford explained. “One of them I airballed. I just saw (Jokic) closing out and I was like, ‘I need to take advantage of this.’ I was driving it and I was going to go finish strong, and at the last second, the guy came and helped. I saw (Jaylen Brown) in the corner and just made the right play.”

Brown had missed all four of his 3-point attempts, but drilled the corner 3-pointer.

“Just open, shoot it,” he said. “I missed every shot prior to it. I was like, ‘I’m not missing this. No way I’m missing this one.'”

Added Brown: “I knew Al was going to pass it. That’s why I was ready to shoot it.”

After crediting Brown for his big miss, Celtics Coach Brad Stevens called the pass “a tremendous play by Al.”

“The drive-and-kick at that moment, I think a lot of guys shoot that floater or kind of a layup where you have to extend over somebody is not a great percentage shot, especially with guys flying in,” Stevens said. “But to have the wherewithal to kick it to the corner was the right basketball play. After that, it is what it is. It’s a good shot.”

After that good shot, Boston still needed to hold on. Jamal Murray hit a tough leaner with about 28 seconds left, cutting the Celtics’ lead to one. They forced Barton to switch on Irving, but Irving missed a fadeaway jumper to give the Nuggets one last chance. Malone declined to use his final timeout, setting the stage for one final hectic sequence to decide the game.

“We got a stop, didn’t want (Boston) to set their defense,” Malone said. “Obviously, I think we had a chance to throw the ball ahead and get a better look but it was a situation we said in the timeout, if we get a stop we have a chance to break out, let’s go with it.”

If Malone had called timeout, the Celtics would have had a chance to set their top-ranked defense. Even during Barton’s miss, it was easy to see why the Nuggets decided to just go. The Celtics were a little scattered on the back end, and Denver, with another second, would have won on an easy putback.

But the Nuggets didn’t have a lot of time left when they rebounded the miss. Then Barton released a tough 34-footer.

“Contain the ball,” said Brown. “Will Barton was pushing it. He’s a really good scorer, so they didn’t have a lot of time. I just wanted to bait him into taking a jumper rather than let him get to the basket and put something up.”