DENVER — When asked before last night’s game about the Celtics offense’s cold start to the season, Mike Malone asked for someone to pump the brakes.
“They’re improving rapidly,” the Denver coach said.
Not rapidly enough, and not by the time Nuggets guard Jamal Murray was finished rifling his way to a career-high 48 points.
The Celtics fell to Murray’s Nuggets, 115-107, and are officially on their first losing streak of the season. They are also off to an 0-2 start on this five-city road trip.
The Celts have been slayed twice in as many games by scorers who have been able to find an easy rhythm against their defense. Indiana’s Victor Oladipo hit a game-winning 3-pointer with 3.4 seconds left Saturday night, and Murray was on fire last night.
“It was a heck of an individual performance,” Brad Stevens said. “We tried a lot of different guys, a lot of different coverages, tried to go small and switch, tried to do a lot of different things. And he pretty much cooked us all night. He had a heck of a game.
“We sent two at him most of that time in the fourth. By then he’s just rolling so much. I thought he got a couple of easy ones that made him feel good right out of the gate. He had been struggling shooting the 3 coming into the game, at least versus his level. And we left him early. And he had that 10-point run in the first half when we were really scoring the ball. And from that point on, he was just lights out. I mean, he was tremendous.”
The Celtics allowed another close game to slip away. But they will have this image for a while, the sight of Murray effortlessly draining everything from 3-pointers (5-for-11) to an endless chain of finishes at the rim.
“Just try to break his rhythm,” Jaylen Brown said. “He hit us with the same move like four or five times, up-and-under, so we have to be cognizant of that and make it tough on him. We should have blitzed earlier and we could have changed up some stuff and noticed that he was getting it going. He had a really good game, man. I tip my hat to him.”
The Celtics thus squandered a great night by Kyrie Irving, who matched his season high with 31 points. Too few other Celtics were able to muster offensive support. Jayson Tatum (15 points) and Gordon Hayward (eight points, nine rebounds) shot a combined 8-for-21. Marcus Morris, in a rare off night, shot 3-for-9 and missed all four of his 3-point attempts.
It was only the second time in 10 games that Morris has gone without a trey.
Not that it was going to matter in the face of Murray’s one-man attack. Gary Harris and Trey Lyles, the next-highest Nuggets, scored 13 points apiece.
Back-to-back 3-pointers from Murray capped an 11-4 Denver run with 6:45 left. Murray, who had nine points in the run, came back with his 40th point 37 seconds later. The Celtics had just taken a hit when Morris, angry about a charge call by referee Scott Foster, picked up a technical foul for protesting too much.
The result was a three-point Denver swing, when Nicola Jokic followed up Murray’s tech free throw by scoring out of the post.
“That was something by me about getting an offensive foul. I honestly didn’t think it was an offensive foul, but getting that technical, he was already going before that, so that wasn’t the reason he got hot,” Morris said. “But that was definitely selfish by me about getting that tech, because it’s fourth quarter, trying to fight back, giving them momentum like that was uncharacteristic and very selfish.”
The Nuggets guard hit two more jumpers in the next three minutes, with the Celtics answering each time. Murray’s drive with 2:53 left gave the Nuggets a 112-105 lead.
By the time he somehow snatched an inbound pass out of a crowd and beat Irving with a scoop, the Celtics were trailing by nine points (114-105) with 1:14 left. The Celtics would run out of clock.