BOSTON — Three weeks ago, the Celtics took the floor at the TD Garden for a nationally televised Friday night contest with a little extra hop in their step. They were playing the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Kevin Durant was out with a sprained ankle. They figured they'd cruise to a big win with all of America watching.
They were wrong.
So when deja vu struck and the Celtics were again taking on a Western Conference power without its superstar leader, they made sure that history didn't repeat itself.
Carmelo Anthony wasn't in action for the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, taking the night off to rest an inflammation in his right knee, but the Celtics kept their eyes on the prize. The result was a 105-89 win for the C's on their home floor, their eighth consecutive victory.
"We took it for granted last time with one of their star players not playing, and we didn't today," said Glen Davis. "That's the sign of a growing team — a team that's growing and learning from its mistakes."
Games like this are about mental toughness. On paper, the Celtics had the talent. They were supposed to win. But if their heads weren't in it, they could have easily let this game slip away. They had to maintain focus.
"I think [coach Doc Rivers] really made a point of that," said Paul Pierce. "He really didn't want to tell us that Carmelo wasn't playing — I think he waited until they very last second, because we went over the game plan as if he was playing. We took that to heart and went out there just trying to establish ourselves in the first quarter."
"I thought we came out very professional and ready," Rivers said. "When you lose a star like that, it's tough for the other team. You played last night, you lose Carmelo — that's a tough night for you. And yet for three of the four quarters, we were very good."
The one worrisome quarter for Rivers was the second. The C's built a big lead early, getting up 30-11 toward the end of the first by way of a flurry of jumpers from Pierce and Ray Allen. But they let their guard down defensively when the second unit took the floor. The Nuggets started hitting shots, they picked up some momentum, and before the Celtics knew it, their 19-point lead had been cut to just one.
The game plan had changed without Carmelo out there, and the Celtics needed time to adjust.
"It's definitely a different mind-set," Pierce said. "When you play against Carmelo, you've always got to be on your toes. The difference is that when guarding Gary Forbes, I become more of a helper, more of a roamer. The defensive scheme changes with Carmelo out — Kevin [Garnett] has to do less helping. We use Kevin as our defensive anchor, so a lot of things change when their primary scorer isn't in there. It's a different kind of mind-set."
The Celtics eventually got things sorted out mentally, and it showed on the scoreboard. Ultimately, they got 28 points from Allen, 17 each from Pierce and KG, and 16 from Davis off the bench. But it wasn't about the numbers — the C's won this one because the defense came together.
"That's who we are," Rivers said. "Our offense is getting a lot of light because of what we're shooting every night and all that, but it's off of our defense. We're getting stops, and we're able to run. We're getting [Rajon] Rondo into the open court because of our defensive stops. The formula isn't that hard, but it's hard to do it every single night. Lately, we've done it every night, and that's good."
The consistency is there, and when your effort is consistent, eight-game winning streaks have a way of building themselves. The Celtics aren't letting anything distract them now.
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