BOSTON — The Denver Nuggets are headed back to the postseason after a six-year drought.
Nikola Jokic had 21 points and 13 rebounds and the Nuggets rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the Boston Celtics 114-105 on Monday night and clinched their first playoff berth since 2012-13.
Will Barton added 20 points for Denver, which has won four straight. The Nuggets (47-22) are tied with Golden State for the best record in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets won 46 games last season, but missed the playoffs after losing in overtime to Minnesota on the final day of the regular season. This season their 47th victory proved to be their charm.
“It’s a great feeling,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “Four years in the making. Two years in a row coming up just shy, one game short. Using that as a motivation for tonight’s moment.”
Smiles were everywhere in the Nuggets locker room afterward.
“Yesss sir!” Jamal Murray beamed. “We’re just going to take this. We’re going to take a moment to realize how far we’ve come. It’s good to look ahead and enjoy the moment at the same time.”
Kyrie Irving led the Celtics (43-28) with 30 points. Al Horford finished with 20 points, six rebounds and six assists.
It was Boston’s second loss in seven games.
“You gotta play well for 48 minutes against those guys,” Irving said. “They’ve come back from 18 down, 17 down. They keep firing.”
The Celtics are fifth in the East, 1½ games behind fourth-place Indiana and 2½ games behind Philadelphia, whom they visit on Wednesday.
The game felt like a matchup between two postseason-bound teams.
It stayed tight at the start of the second half, with neither team holding more than a two-possession lead in the third quarter.
But the Nuggets got some breathing room in the final period and took a 106-94 lead with 3:47 left in the game.
Boston scored seven straight to get it within five, but Barton stopped the run with a layup. Following a missed 3-pointer by Horford on the other end, Paul Millsap all but sealed it with a four-point play that made it 112-101 with 31.3 seconds remaining.
The pace was rapid throughout the first half.
The teams combined for 107 points in the opening 24 minutes. Nuggets held the 55-52 halftime lead, with Jokic and Barton scoring 13 points apiece.
Irving started the game 1 for 9 from the field, but Horford picked up the scoring load for the Celtics, connecting on 5 of his 9 attempts from the field.
Isaiah Thomas received lots of love from the Celtics during his latest return to the city he said still feels like home despite multiple stops the past two seasons.
A video highlighting Thomas’ time in Boston was shown during a timeout in the first quarter and ended with an extended standing ovation from fans and players and coaches from both teams.
Denver coach Michael Malone previously informed Thomas he was being dropped from the rotation in preparation for the playoffs. But he inserted the 5-foot-9 guard into the game with 2:42 left in the first quarter.
Thomas started slowly missing two shots, stepping out bounds and fouling Daniel Theis on his way in for a dunk. He started the second quarter and played a total of seven minutes for the game, finishing with no points and two assists.
A two-time All-Star in Boston, Thomas was blindsided by the trade that sent him to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the deal that brought Kyrie Irving to the Celtics in the summer of 2017. He was dealt to the Lakers at the trade deadline that next season, before landing in Denver this past summer.
He says the hip injury that slowed him during his final season in Boston is healed and that whatever happens he is going into free agency this summer with open eyes. That includes being open to a possible return to Boston.
“You never know what could happen,” Thomas said. “My options are always open no matter what it is. If I end up back here at some point. That would make the story that much better.”