SAN ANTONIO — In the record book, it will go down as a loss and nothing more.
The ledger won’t show that for most of Wednesday night, the Celtics kept up with a team at the opposite end of the spectrum from where their rebuilding franchise resides now and the foreseeable future.
It won’t show that the Celtics rebounded from a pathetic effort the night before, when the Houston Rockets waxed them by 24 points, to threaten a perennial power that reached Game 7 of the NBA Finals last season.
It will only show that the San Antonio Spurs finished off their guests, 104-93, at the AT&T Center, adding another notch to the Celtics’ loss column, their fifth straight defeat, which drops their record to 4-9.
“The team that played tonight could be a really fun group to build with,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “That’s what you take from here.”
At this point, the Celtics will squeeze whatever positives they can out of final results, few of which will be in their favor this season.
Forward Jared Sullinger was a bright spot, with 19 points and a career-high 17 rebounds in his first start of the season.
“I was just picking and choosing my spots,” he said.
Jeff Green and Avery Bradley also scored 19 points.
And the Celtics outrebounded the Spurs, 44-41.
And Stevens, who had been against the idea of moral victories, walked away from another defeat — five straight defeats is more than he has ever endured on any level — with a much more upbeat demeanor, signaling a realistic change in his outlook.
“There’s going to be nights where we measure progress a little bit differently,” Stevens said. “It wasn’t hard to measure [against Houston], we didn’t make any. But tonight we made a little bit and hopefully we build off of it.”
Wednesday’s game was closer than the final score would indicate, as the Celtics led by 7 in the first half and were tied with the Spurs at halftime.
But the Spurs opened the third quarter with a 13-4 run to take a 61-52 lead.
Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, a nightmare mismatch, scored 9 points during that run, toying with the Celtics.
By the fourth quarter, the Spurs started to pull away with a 12-2 run to take a 97-78 lead with 6:18 left, sealing San Antonio’s eighth straight win, improving them to 10-1.
“Coach Stevens and his group did a great job after having a tough game last night,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “On a back-to-back, they came in and played. It wasn’t until the second half that we played with the focus and the respect that we needed to play with.”
The difference was points off turnovers. The Spurs turned 17 Celtics’ miscues into 25 points, while the Celtics turned 12 Spurs’ turnovers into a measly 4 points.
“They’re very opportunistic,” Stevens said. “They get the ball up the floor and to the open person extremely quickly if you turn it over.”
All five Spurs starters scored in double figures. Tony Parker led the way with 19. Leonard added 16 and eight rebounds. Tim Duncan had 13 points and nine rebounds.
They also racked up 27 assists on 39 field goals, showing off their precision passing that could only come with years of experience playing together.
“Our guys are really young out there,” Stevens said.
Comparatively, yes. And at one point, Stevens said he realized that the combined age of Sullinger (21) and Kelly Olynyk (22) almost equaled Duncan’s (37).
Stevens started his young forwards in an effort to shake up the lineup after a 109-85 embarrassment the night before. Overall, they produced, and the two savvy big men used their passing skills to help stretch the Spurs’ defense and give the Celtics open shots early.
Olynyk had 8 points and eight rebounds, and Sullinger had a double-double by halftime, with 10 points and 12 boards.
Sullinger had noted he prepared for this game — the second of a back-to-back — by making sure he was better hydrated. He noticed a difference.
“My legs felt fresh,” he said.
Green, meanwhile, more than tripled his scoring output in the last two games combined (6). The athletic forward came out aggressive, scoring 8 first-quarter points, making three of his first four shots.
“That comes and goes,” he said. “I’d much rather win.”
But even he was happy with how his team responded, especially playing tight defense in the first half that helped keep the Celtics in the game.
As for Stevens, the flight back to Boston won’t be nearly as bumpy.
“To me, when you’re with a team, when you’re coaching a team, do you see that thing in their eyes that gives you a chance to win on a given night? The answer was yes tonight,” he said.
It will be doubly impressive if the Celtics give themselves a chance in their next game, Friday at TD Garden against the mighty Indiana Pacers, who like the Spurs are 10-1, the best mark in the NBA.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.