BOSTON — If the Celtics are going to be a threat in the playoffs this season, they will need consistent effort on the defensive end.
They did that for spurts in their 111-103 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, stealing the ball 15 times and forcing at least 20 turnovers for the fourth straight game.
That won't stop coach Brad Stevens for asking for more.
"We have a lot of room to improve, but when we turn it up and we're in the right position, we can be a good defensive team," Stevens said. "If we don't guard, we won't win. That's a part of us playing well."
Avery Bradley led the Celtics, matching his season-high with 27 points, while Kelly Olynyk added 17 points and seven rebounds. Isaiah Thomas finished with 16 points and five assists.
The victory tied a season-high win streak for the Celtics.
Swingman Evan Turner, who had 14 points off the bench, said that although Boston finds itself just five games back of the second seed in the East, no one in the locker room is watching the standings.
Part of the reason, he said, might be because they remember where they were at this point last season.
"We needed to win eight games just to be horrible," Turner said. "It's hard to say this is a crazy run. But it's a great run obviously."
Boston took a 15-point lead into the fourth quarter on a last-second 3-point play by Olynyk to end the third.
The Celtics kept attacking, scoring the first seven points of the quarter and growing their lead to 22 points.
Danilo Gallinari and Will Barton led Denver with 23 apiece.
The Nuggets lost for the fourth time in five games.
They got within 10 points on a dunk by Kenneth Faried with about five minutes remaining. But the Celtics went on a run again to help secure the win.
Boston led by as many as 13 in the first half, thanks largely to the outside touch of Bradley. He was 8 of 13 from the field and finished the half with 5 3-pointers.
The Nuggets didn't help their cause with 15 turnovers. Their giveaways led to 15 Boston points.
"This is such a mental thing where we have to figure out a way to do it together," Gallinari said. "We can't keep playing like this for good stretches, bad stretches, especially when we're on the road."
Nuggets: Gallinari has scored 20 or more points in 10 of his last 13 games. ... Have lost 16 of their last 18 on the road to Boston.
Celtics: Went on an 18-1 run after Denver closed to 75-70 in the third quarter. ... Improved to 22-11 this season when scoring 100 or more points. ... Improved to 7-7 vs. the Western Conference.
HE HAS MY VOTE: In Stevens' mind, there's no question that Isaiah Thomas merits an All-Star nod. "I sure hope so. I don't know what the chances are. I don't know however many coaches there are that vote for it. He sure deserves it," Stevens said.
Stevens said it would also be a "feature in the cap" for his teammates. "I think as much as he lifts them up, it's been a great situation for them and they've been a big part of that."
SMART'S STAR RISING: Boston second-year guard Marcus Smart was selected Wednesday for the U.S. roster of All-Star weekend's Rising Stars Challenge. He was the lone selection for the U.S. who plays on a team with a winning record so far this season. "That's a good sign when your young players are invited to do something like that, especially when they've only played half the year," Stevens said.
REPORT CARD: Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he has been pleasantly surprised this season by the play of rookie C Nikola Jokic, who was named to the World Team's roster for the Rising Stars game. Entering Wednesday, the Serbian-born big man came in averaging nine points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He also reached double figures in eight of the Nuggets' previous 18 games. "People are starting to figure out who he is," Malone said.
Boston hosts the Magic on Friday.
Denver plays at Washington on Thursday.
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