Wednesday night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs was eerily similar to a handful of the Celtics’ games against superior teams through the first 56 games. The Celtics weren’t blown out often through the first half of the season. They would battle valiantly with their patchwork lineup, only to fall apart in a critical stretch.
The Spurs, despite the absence of three major contributors, are far too skilled for slippage. They simply fed the ball to ageless Tim Duncan in the final 24 minutes and he went to work on a plethora of Celtics post players and what was a competitive game, much to the delight of an energetic crowd at TD Garden, suddenly wasn’t so close.
Duncan scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half as the Spurs dominated the final quarter for a 104-92 win, ending the Celtics’ rather rocky unofficial first half at 19-35.
And of those 35 losses, at least half can be attributed to puzzling breakdowns. The Celtics, trailing, 71-66, after three quarters, had no answer for Duncan in the fourth. He scored 12 points on an array of fastball bank shots and one-handed hooks.
San Antonio went on an 8-0 run for an 93-79 lead that essentially sealed the game as three Celtics starters had trouble scoring all evening. Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace, and Jared Sullinger were 9-for-35 shooting for 20 points.
Rajon Rondo, back after taking Monday off to rest, led the Celtics with 16 points, 12 of those on 3-pointers. But he collected just four assists, a testament to the Celtics’ erratic shooting and San Antonio’s defense.
“I think part of it was they were active on [Rondo], they were aggressive on him, he shot the ball well again, which was really good,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And the other thing is they converge quickly, so it’s usually the pass after the pass that ends up giving you a look, and that’s the thing that obviously we didn’t make enough of them. We didn’t shoot the ball very well, especially in the first quarter. I don’t know where we were, but it felt like we were under 30 percent [31.8].”
The Celtics battled early in the second half, jumping ahead, 56-55, on a Green jumper at the 7:10 mark of the third quarter. That’s when Duncan, who had just one basket at halftime, scored 7 of San Antonio’s next 9 points and the Spurs slowly started to take control.
As has been his pattern, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich rested key starters, sending Tony Parker back to San Antonio before he participates in Sunday’s All-Star Game. Manu Ginobili (sore hamstring) and Kawhi Leonard (fractured hand) were also out, but San Antonio’s replacements filled in admirably.
Boris Diaw scored 18 points, Marco Belinelli added 16 with a career-high 11 rebounds, and Patty Mills pitched in with 16 points. The Spurs were as advertised — a precision machine while the Celtics were that economy car that breaks down at rush hour.
“It seems like they took the spirit from us,” Wallace said. “They dominated [in the second half]. Tim Duncan came out and scored at will. They kind of broke our momentum and broke our spirit at the beginning of the third quarter.”
The bright spot Wednesday was the play of rookie Kelly Olynyk, who will head to Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge playing his best basketball of the season. After notching his first double-double in Monday’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks, he collected a second with 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting and 10 rebounds.
Olynyk appears more comfortable with his shot and more aggressive around the basket.
“He’s starting to get a good feel for understanding and picking where your opportunities are when you have those kind of structured-but-unstructured opportunities,” Stevens said. “And he’s really starting to figure that out.’’
Sullinger saw his streak of consecutive double-doubles end at six. He was in bed most of the day with flu-like symptoms and had trouble guarding Duncan. He played just 18:31 and took nine shots.
“I missed a lot of shots, I don’t think [the sickness] affected me, I was a little bit off of my routine,” he said. “As a result, I missed a lot of shots I normally make.”
Without Sullinger’s reliable inside presence and Green missing 13 of 17 attempts, the Celtics were erratic offensively and unable to contain San Antonio from the perimeter (9 for 19 on 3-pointers).
It was a typical performance. The Celtics have proven throughout the first half they are hardly the league’s worst team, but they don’t have enough to compete down the stretch — when good teams seal games.
“I thought our starters played well out of the gate in the third quarter, and then did some really good things,” Stevens said. “But [the Spurs], you know no matter who they have, they put a lot of pressure on you. And the way they move the ball — I said this before the game, it’s basketball the way basketball should be played — and it’s really a pleasure to watch, unless you’re coaching against it.”