With 6:05 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Celtics' emotional Thursday night tilt with the Denver Nuggets, Paul Pierce stepped up and drilled a 25-footer from the wing, putting the C's up 75-73. They were on the verge of their biggest win of the season, absolutely, without question.
Forget opening night against the Heat. Forget the return to the Staples Center. Forget the Spurs, the Bulls, the Magic, forget everyone else. If the C's had pulled this one off, in the face of everything they'd been through Thursday, this would have been the victory of the century.
But in that final 6:05, the Nuggets tore the Celtics to shreds, going on a 16-0 run down the stretch.
On Thursday afternoon, the Celtics were devastated by the loss of Kendrick Perkins, not to mention the additional wheeling and dealing that sent away Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels, Semih Erden and Luke Harangody.
The loss Thursday night was pretty bad, too.
The most likely explanation? Pretty simple — the Celtics were playing with basically an eight-man rotation, and down the stretch, those eight men ran out of gas.
"I don't know," coach Doc Rivers said after the 89-75 loss at the Pepsi Center. "It looked like that. I wasn't really happy with what we ran down the stretch of the game. We walked into a lot of sets, and that might have been fatigue. But we try to start our offense with 18 or 19 [seconds] on the [shot] clock. We started it six or seven times in a row in that stretch under eight. It's tough to run your offense with eight seconds on the clock.
"It could have been [fatigue]. It very well could have been."
Understandable, given the circumstances. The Celtics were four bodies short on Thursday night, with Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic still en route from Oklahoma City and two O'Neals still resting injuries. The Nuggets saw a weakened Celtics squad late in the game, and they went for the kill.
First, they strung a few stops together to stay within striking distance; then, Wilson Chandler nailed a 3 to give them the lead. From there, it was on. The Nuggets kept running up and down the floor — their depth had been bolstered by this week's trade to bring in four former Knicks, and they took advantage. They had fresh bodies with fresh legs, and that made the difference in the game.
"They scored, which we didn't like, and we couldn't score," Rivers said. "We didn't get good shots for the most part down the stretch. We went all the way down to the end of the clock and took pretty bad, pretty forced shots. Our whole thing was try to keep it close and then see if we could win it at the end. We did [keep it close], but then we couldn't get anything going at the end."
This funk will eventually pass. Thursday night was a unique circumstance — the C's were shocked by the Perkins trade to Oklahoma City, they were shorthanded and tired, and beating the Nuggets was probably the last thing on their mind. The Celtics are professionals, and they'll regain their focus in due time.
It might not be quick, though. The Celtics were pained to lose their longtime center, and coping isn't easy.
"They love him," Rivers said. "It's very personal. Perk was a family member. He was more than just a player for us. When you lose a family member like that, it hurts. It's emotional. And that's how the guys are — they understand the trade and all that stuff, but that still doesn't mean it's not emotional for them."
Sometimes emotion can be channeled into a big win. That was the plan Thursday night, but it didn't pan out.
It will take the Celtics some time to move on from losing Kendrick Perkins, but in the meantime, they'll have to find a way to win some basketball games.