1/29 Game Preview: Celtics at Nuggets

Putting away losing teams has been an issue of late for the Denver Nuggets, so hosting the top seed in the Eastern Conference should provide plenty of motivation for them.

The Nuggets have lost two home games in January to the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, and nearly let one slip against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night. They pulled that one out, 91-89, two nights after scoring 130 points against the New York Knicks.

Whether it was focus or the inability to get up for a sub-.500 team, Denver has struggled against them. The Nuggets can't afford to ease up when the Boston Celtics are at Pepsi Center on Monday night.

The Celtics (35-15) are coming off a 109-105 loss at Golden State in which many believe could be a preview of the NBA Finals in June. Guard Kyrie Irving had 37 points in the loss and continues to play well since being traded to Boston in the summer.

The Celtics have also done a good job of overcoming Gordon Hayward's horrific injury in the first five minutes of the season. Boston lost its first two games but had been rolling until losing five of its last six.

The recent rough stretch has the Celtics worrying about Monday night's game, their last in a four-game road trip, instead of thinking of a finals rematch with the Warriors.

"Hey, I just focus on what's in front of me, and I think our team focuses on what's in front of us," Boston forward Jaylen Brown told reporters after Saturday night's loss. "That's a long ways from now. We've got a lot better to get, and we'll see when we get there."

The Nuggets (26-23) aren't worrying about the finals, either, but they are focused on making the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. They occupy the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference after winning three in a row, just 1 1/2 games behind the New Orleans Pelicans for the sixth seed.

The Pelicans were dealt a blow when center DeMarcus Cousins tore his left Achilles tendon against the Houston Rockets on Friday night, losing the big man for the rest of the season. The injury gives Denver a better chance to pass the hobbled Pelicans, especially when Paul Millsap comes back. The power forward has been out since mid-November with a left wrist injury that required surgery, and he has increased his rehab with the hopes of coming back soon after the All-Star break.

He has been doing shooting and ball-handling drills, but coach Michael Malone said his hand and wrist are still stiff.

"There are good days and bad days," Malone told reporters before Saturday's game. "He's a little sore right now from ramping up his on-court activity, but he's fired up. He's working hard."

Millsap won't be in the lineup against the Celtics, so the Nuggets will have to rely on everyone else. Point guard Jamal Murray is expected to return to the starting lineup after coming off the bench Saturday as punishment for violating team rules.

Denver will need him against Boston, but most of all it needs focus from start to finish. The Nuggets aren't apologizing for squeaking out a win against the Mavericks, though.

"It doesn't matter how you get it, at the end of the day as long as we have more points than the other team it's a good night," guard Gary Harris said.