BOSTON — The teams with the two longest active winning streaks in the NBA got together at TD Garden on Sunday night, and it seemed only fitting they would need five extra minutes to decide a winner.
But TEN extra minutes?
“It was a clear case of two teams that have been playing great — one had won nine, one had won six, and neither team wanted to lose the game,” Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after his Celtics survived a 118-114 triple-overtime instant classic with the Denver Nuggets, extending the Celtics’ winning streak to seven games (since Rajon Rondo went down for the season) and ending Denver’s nine-game run.
“Very few times when you lose do you think it’s probably a good thing, and I thought we played as well as we can play with the circumstances,” said Denver coach George Karl, whose team won in Cleveland Saturday night, then lost Andre Iguodala to a cervical strain in the third quarter Sunday.
“We played with a lot of heart, a lot of guts, we took a lot of punches and fought back every time.”
Jason Terry, who missed his first five shots in extra time, nailed a 3-pointer with 1:33 left, then stole the ball from Andre Miller as the Celtics held on in the first of their back-to-back games, which includes a game in Charlotte Monday night.
Miller, who had 15 points, six assists and five rebounds off the bench, missed a 3-pointer that could have given the Nuggets the lead in the closing seconds. Terry (season-high 26 points off the bench) hit a meaningless layup at the buzzer.
“I think both teams wanted to go home,” said Miller.
Paul Pierce, who set up Terry’s winning shot, had a triple-double, compiling 27 points, 14 assists and 14 rebounds in a whopping 54 minutes. Kevin Garnett, playing a season-high 47 minutes, hit three jumpers in the third overtime and finished with 20 points, 18 rebounds and six assists.
“It was a good win, man,” said Pierce. “It was hard fought, we’re playing against one of the hottest teams in the league, on our home court. It’s definitely a satisfying win.”
The 35-year-old Terry called the 36-year-old Garnett “a 50-year-old man,” and Garnett countered with, “He’s no spring chicken, either.”
Ty Lawson’s basket with 0.8 seconds left in regulation, after a controversial out-of-bounds call, forced the first overtime, while Jeff Green (17 points off the bench) hit a 3-pointer from the left corner with 23.8 seconds left to send the game to the second OT. Pierce, who missed a critical free throw with 32.5 seconds left in the second OT, forced the third overtime with a contested 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds remaining.
The refs checked the replay to see whether Pierce’s foot was in fact behind the 3-point line.
Miller, who was guarding Pierce, said, “I don’t know if it was a three or a two but they called it a three. It was a fun game.”
Lawson led Denver (33-19) with 29 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Danilo Gallinari (7-for-20 from the floor) had 18 points, including a deep 3-pointer that tied the game at 113-113, and 10 rebounds, while Kenneth Faried posted 14 points and 12 boards, while JaVale McGee had 16 rebounds off the bench.
Terry’s winning 3-pointer was Boston’s 13th of the game, on 30 tries.
The Celtics (27-23) blew an 11-point, third-quarter lead but managed to move to 5-4 in overtime games.
Denver (33-19) suffered its first OT defeat in four tries.
The Nuggets rallied after losing Iguodala, their third-leading scorer.
The Nuggets turned the ball over five times and didn’t score for the first 4:15 of the game as the Celtics built an early 12-0 lead. Denver answered with nine straight points to keep from getting blown away.
The lead was back up to 10 by the end of the quarter, with the Celtics credited (generously) with 11 assists on 11 baskets in the quarter.
Boston was up by 10 with three minutes left in the second quarter, but the Nuggets had a 10-4 run in the final 2:46 to trail by just four at the break. Pierce had a brilliant third quarter, but Boston couldn’t shake the visitors.
NOTES: Boston had 34 assists on 43 baskets. … The 3-OT game was the Celtics’ first since a playoff loss to the Bulls in 2009 (their first in the regular season since 2006), while the Nuggets played their first since 2006. … Denver continues its pre-All-Star break four-game road trip at Toronto on Tuesday and then visits Brooklyn on Wednesday. The Celtics finish up their pre-break play at home against Chicago Wednesday. … Rivers tried hard to get a practice in Saturday, but it just couldn’t happen due to a blizzard, so he brought the players in early Sunday for a walk-through in preparation for a team the Celtics had not seen this season. Boston visits Denver on Feb. 19. … Boston rookie center Fab Melo got a game in with Maine of the Development League and was back with the Celtics. He scored his first two NBA points Thursday night, but he didn’t play Sunday.