The Boston Celtics kicked away a game in Phoenix on Sunday but then recovered to beat the best team in the NBA on Wednesday.
It seems counterintuitive to fall to one of the worst teams in the league but then dominate the Golden State Warriors, holding them to a season-low 86 points in a 13-point win, but the Celtics (41-24) have shown a tendency for up-and-down performances.
"We get up for games like this, and then we drop off when it's not the same personnel," Avery Bradley told The Boston Globe after the 99-86 win over the Warriors. "We have to lock in every single game and take every game seriously."
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They get a chance to prove they can lock in Friday night in Denver when they wrap up their five-game Western Conference trip. Boston is 2-2 on the swing out West and has a chance to head home with momentum heading into the final 16 games.
They'll face a Nuggets team struggling to hold onto the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Like Boston, Denver has at times amped its play against good teams but dialed it down against inferior opponents. Home losses to Philadelphia, Sacramento and Detroit have been interspersed with wins over Golden State, Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers.
On Wednesday, the Nuggets were dominated by Washington in a game where they didn't show life until the second half after they fell behind by 24 points.
"You can't do it for a half against a good team," said forward Mason Plumlee, who had his second straight double-double in the loss to the Wizards. "We've got to play the full four quarters against the better teams in the league."
The Nuggets (29-35) played Wednesday without Nikola Jokic, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried, three starters who could have helped against the surging Wizards. Jokic has missed two games with the flu and is questionable for Friday. Gallinari was out with vertigo and is also questionable while Faried has missed six straight games with back spasms. He is out for Friday's game.
It will be a tough task to follow up a game against the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference with one against the team holding the second seed. Still, the Nuggets ran Golden State off the court Feb. 13 without Gallinari and Faried, so they have shown the ability to rise up to the challenge.
"We've been down people all year and we've beaten teams short-handed, so that's not an excuse at all," said Gary Harris, who had a career-high 26 points against Washington. "It definitely hurt not having them, but we also have to go out there and compete and try to get a win."
While Denver is fighting for the final playoff spot, the Celtics are battling for positioning and are currently a game up on the Wizards. A No. 2 seed would mean home-court advantage through at least the first two rounds. They have a favorable schedule the rest of the way, including a home game against Washington on March 20.
But they have to take care of business before that matchup, and that includes Friday against an inconsistent Nuggets team. With the return of center Al Horford from a two-game absence with a sprained right elbow and Jonas Jerebko from an upper respiratory infection, they are fully healthy and feeling confident.
Isaiah Thomas, who had a team-high 25 points against Golden State, told The Boston Globe, "When we're healthy, we compete and we can beat any team in the NBA. And we know that."