BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers made it a point to apologize to Jason Terry after Sunday's triple-overtime marathon against the Denver Nuggets. Clearly, Rivers had previously miscast the 14th-year veteran.
Despite a reputation as a big-shot maker, Terry has been considered a potential defensive liability at this stage of his career, and Rivers had been making offense/defense substitutions while swapping Terry out for Courtney Lee at times.
So, of course, with all conventionality already tossed out the window as Sunday's game spilled into a third overtime, it was somewhat appropriate that Terry -- fresh off hitting a monster 3-pointer to give Boston the lead for good with 1:33 remaining -- came up with a crafty pickpocket of Andre Miller to essentially secure a heart-stopping 118-114 triumph over the Nuggets at TD Garden.
"I apologized to Jason after the game for taking him out for defensive situations because clearly he's our stopper now," Rivers quipped. "It's just Jason. He does so many things for you, he's so tough. It's amazing how tough he is. That's why he's still playing. He's a gamer."
Terry arrived in Boston this summer with a reputation for thriving in the biggest moments. In part because of the Celtics' inconsistent play -- and his own roller-coaster production through the first half of the season -- Terry rarely has been able to showcase that clutch gene.
But with the Celtics leaning on what he would later dub the "Triple Original Gangsters" while sharing the court with 36-year-old Kevin Garnett and 35-year-old Paul Pierce, the 35-year-old Terry came through at both ends of the floor on Sunday, lifting Boston to a season-best seventh straight win and snapping Denver's nine-game winning streak.
"I'll take experience over youth and athleticism any day," Terry said. "Especially in this league. When it's a big game, when it's the playoffs or when it's the NBA Finals, you have to have guys that have been there before. And I think that's where that experience comes in. And again, if there's a game to be won, with those three guys on the floor (Pierce, Garnett, Terry), you have a good chance to win."
If Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was pondering the notion of trading any part of that veteran triumvirate moving forward, he'll probably have bad news for those calling over the next 10 days. Even with Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger lost for the season, Boston has played some inspired ball while leaning on that veteran core.
On Sunday, Terry finished with a season-high 26 points on 10-of-22 shooting with three steals. Garnett put up 20 points and 18 rebounds over a whopping 47 minutes. Pierce registered his second triple-double of the past seven games, putting up 27 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists over a whopping 54 minutes 11 seconds (only three seconds shy of a career-high 54:13 played seven years ago in a double-overtime loss to the Cavaliers).
After the game, all three were cracking jokes about their age and savoring what may have been the Celtics' grittiest victory of the 2012-13 season.
Terry repeatedly suggested Garnett was "50 years old," and, apprised of that, Garnett quipped back, "He's got to be careful, JET's no spring chicken himself."
Pierce, who hit a ridiculous isolation 3-pointer in the closing moments of the second overtime to give Boston a chance to win a game that it probably should have sealed in regulation, reaffirmed that age is nothing but a number.
"Those three guys you talk about (Pierce, Garnett, Terry) are three champions in the NBA that understand what it takes," Pierce said. "So it's up to us to show the other guys what it takes to win ballgames, to get through a regular season and go into the playoffs.
"We feel the pressure with (Rondo and Sullinger) out. We hear the things that are being said, but at the end of the day, you've got three guys who are champions in this locker room that understand what it takes."
Maybe it was the way Boston dug deep, but Sunday's win resonated with the players more than any other thus far. The Celtics nearly kicked the win away multiple times, but would not give in -- downright refusing to let the game get away in overtime. The Celtics are learning a little something about themselves during this stretch, and it's only fueling the belief that they can remain competitive even after injuries eroded their depth.
"I know we're a bunch of fighters," Garnett said. "I know we've got a bunch of competitive guys in here, we've got a bunch of talent in here. We've got future talent in here. A lot of guys can do some great things. I think a lot of guys in here are going to be great in this league. This is all about putting it together and seeing what it can do together, not just as individuals."
Boston is getting increased contributions from its role players, most notably Jeff Green, who chipped in 17 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals on Sunday. Lee and Avery Bradley make good things happen with their defense even when shots are not falling.
And then there's Terry, who never lets a miss discourage him. Terry had been 0-for-5 beyond the 3-point arc since the start of the fourth quarter on Sunday, but he told Pierce and "whoever else would listen" that he was going to make a big shot at the end of the third overtime.
When the defense collapsed on a driving Pierce in a tie game with little more than 90 seconds to play, the captain kicked it out to Terry on the left wing. Neither player had a doubt the ball was going in.
"Well, shooters shoot," Terry said with a shrug.
And then the shooter played defense. Maligned for the way he often struggles to keep perimeter players in front of him, Terry managed to cut off Andre Miller on a drive to the basket, then muscled him up on the blocks and knocked the ball away twice before pouncing on the loose ball and creating a key turnover.
"When the game is on the line, or if there's a championship on the line, I don't care who you are or what they think of you. How you play, it doesn't matter," Terry said. "That goes out the window. It's me versus you. Who's going to get the stop or make the shot for their team?"
On Sunday, Terry did both.