In a game filled with massive runs, the Celtics ran out of time before they could come up with the last one, as the Spurs seized a 110-106 win in San Antonio on Wednesday night.
The loss was a sour end to the Celtics’ first game of the season with all three of their top scorers: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker. Tatum had 25 points and Brown added 24, but the trio combined to make just 25 of 59 shots. And Boston’s final attempt of the night, a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the last second, was missed by Marcus Smart, sending the Celtics to their fourth loss in five games.
The Spurs shot 56.1 percent from the field and did the most damage inside the arc, connecting on 38 of 54 2-pointers.
“They hit some shots,” Tatum said, “but they were just the tougher team and that’s the frustrating part.”
After San Antonio gashed Boston in the paint during a dominant 29-6 second-quarter run, the Celtics shifted to a 2-1-2 zone defense for much of the second half. It was more effective at keeping the Spurs away from the hoop and helped Boston claw back from a 15-point third-quarter deficit, but ultimately it was not effective enough.
With 27.9 seconds left San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan hit a tough pull-up jumper that gave his team a 105-103 edge. Dejounte Murray then stripped Walker and coasted in for a layup to stretch the lead to 4.
Tatum quickly attacked and converted a layup as he was fouled with 12.4 seconds left, and the free throw made it 107-106. The Celtics tried to trap the sideline inbounds but the Spurs got the ball to Rudy Gay, who was fouled and hit both free throws with 8.6 seconds remaining.
The Celtics were out of timeouts so Walker hurried upcourt and was double-teamed at the top of the key. He fired a pass to Tatum at the left arc, but the Spurs closed quickly, and Tatum found Smart open in the left corner, but his shot was off.
“It’s been an interesting season,” Brown said. “We’ve had guys out, guys hurt. Now guys are back and we’re still just trying to put everything together.”
Observations from the game:
▪ After the Celtics’ second loss in a row to the 76ers last week, Stevens offered a pretty searing rebuke of the defense. The Celtics responded with two solid performances against the Cavaliers and the Bulls, even if both of those offenses sit in the bottom half of the league. But Wednesday saw the return of some bad habits and, perhaps more concerning, lackadaisical effort, and Stevens once again made it a focus of his postgame press conference.
“We’re not holding down the fort,” he said. “Like, we’re not guarding the lane. We’re not protecting the rim. We’re not at the basket. I’m not talking about our bigs; I’m talking about everybody. "
Stevens pointed to the fact that the Spurs made 27 of 33 shots in the paint, compared to 26 of 54 for Boston.
“That means it’s too open,” Stevens said. “It means it’s too easy, and so we just need to get better at that. The zone helped us, it got us back in the game. But we were going to zone out of necessity, because we couldn’t stop our nose bleeding.”
▪ The Celtics’ 2-1-2 zone provided a boost late in the third quarter, as Boston stormed back. The Spurs actually got wide-open looks against it on their first three possessions, but they were from the perimeter instead of the paint, and they did not go in, and then the Spurs’ offense suddenly became much more wobbly. San Antonio went more than five minutes without a made basket.
The Celtics faced zones somewhat frequently in last year’s playoffs, against the Raptors and Heat, but they have not deployed them often under Stevens. On Wednesday, he made it clear the focus on that end of the floor will remain elsewhere for now.
“I’d like to be able to play multiple defenses and multiple defenses well,” he said. “But to be able to do that, I think you have to do one well, and we’re just not.”
▪ The Celtics led, 41-32, with 6:20 left in the second quarter and generally appeared in control. But then they were walloped during perhaps their worst six-minute stretch of the season, as the Spurs closed the half with the 29-6 run. The nadir came at the end.
The Celtics trailed by 10 when Tatum inbounded the ball from the sideline with 6.4 seconds left. Patty Mills stole the pass and coasted in for a layup with 2.8 seconds to play. Then Tatum’s ensuing inbounds pass was knocked away and Lonnie Walker hit a 12-footer before the buzzer.
“The end of the first half, just wasn’t — it was terrible,” Stevens said.
Said Tatum: “I take full responsibility for those turnovers.”
▪ Stevens used 13 players in the game, and 12 in the first half. Walker’s minutes are still limited and Tatum is still working his way back after being sidelined due to COVID-19, but it was still surprising, especially with two days off after this game. But with the Celtics getting closer to full health, Stevens wants to figure out bench rotations and playing time.
“You can write down all of our bench and I don’t know if there’s been a ton of separation to it, so I think there will be some experimenting, looking for different matchups and lineups,” Stevens said.
▪ Daniel Theis drew the start over Tristan Thompson, and he just makes more sense with this starting group. He offers more defensive versatility, he is a more capable floor spacer, and he is considerably more familiar with Boston’s scheme. He had a strong start but picked up his second foul just five minutes into the game and went to the bench for a long stretch.
▪ Robert Williams had a nice second-quarter stint before Boston came unhinged. He completed a nice one-handed alley-oop, grabbed an offensive rebound and fed Semi Ojeleye for a 3-pointer, swatted a Murray layup attempt, and had a follow-slam on a Jeff Teague floater. There will be matchups when there’s not enough playing time to go around for Theis, Thompson, and Williams, and Williams has shown that he is deserving of a larger opportunity.