BOSTON — On a night in which the Celtics honored Malcolm Butler and the rest of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, it’s only fitting that an interception would seal Boston’s victory.
With the Celtics clinging to a two-point lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter at TD Garden on Wednesday night, Jae Crowder stepped in front of an inbounds pass from Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler. The ball eventually made its way to Avery Bradley, whose two free throws put the finishing touches on a 104-100 Celtics win.
Super Bowl, this was not. But Crowder’s steal — and another by Bradley two minutes prior — proved to be the edge the Celtics needed as they seek to keep pace in the race for the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed.
“I thought the two biggest plays of the game were Avery’s dive and Jae’s steal,” head coach Brad Stevens said after the game. “Because those are momentum-shifters in critical junctures. We always talk about how the game has a way of honoring plays like that.”
A shift in momentum was necessary for the Celtics, who shot just 28.8 percent from the floor in the second half to squander a double-digit lead. A Kenneth Faried jumper put the Nuggets up 96-94 with just under three minutes to play — their first lead since early in the second quarter — and Brandon Bass responded with one of his own to pull the teams even again.
That set the stage for the Celtics’ first defensive stand, to borrow another term from their gridiron brethren.
Bradley forced a turnover from Denver point guard Ty Lawson, muscled the loose ball away from Lawson and tossed it to a streaking Evan Turner, who finished with a go-ahead dunk. After a Bradley bucket and two free throws for each side, it was Crowder’s turn. His second steal of the game all but ended things.
“It was tremendous, just watching that and being a part of that,” said rookie guard Marcus Smart, who was on the court for the entire fourth quarter. “Those guys worked their tails off (Wednesday night). Jae came up with a big play at the end, and Avery right before him. That’s what this team is looking for, and that’s what happened.”
The Celtics have talked all season about defensive success begetting offensive production, and that certainly was the case against the Nuggets. Boston played small for much of the fourth quarter, eschewing size for speed and defensive intensity.
The scheme worked, as Denver turned the ball over five times in the fourth. Bradley, Crowder and Smart all were strong defensively, and even Marcus Thornton, who’s known far more for his shooting, picked up two steals for the third time in three games.
“This is really big for us tonight.” Bradley said. “It not only got the fans into it but that’s our identity, that’s the kind of team we have to be every single night.”