SAN ANTONIO – Once again, the Celtics pulled up and relented at the worst possible time. Their 7-point lead with three minutes left melted and they proceeded to go scoreless the rest of the way, leading to another crushing loss.
While the Celtics stopped scoring, Dejounte Murray sparked a game-ending 15-0 run as the Spurs, languishing at the bottom of the Western Conference, rallied to stun the Celtics 96-88 at AT&T Center.
Marcus Smart gave the Celtics an 88-81 lead with a short jumper with 3:21 left. The Spurs then countered with 6 points over the next minute, putting all the pressure on the Celtics offense and they cracked.
The Celtics missed their final five shots, turned the ball over once, and then allowed Murray to constantly dive into the paint for short jumpers. He finished with 29 points, 13 in the fourth quarter as the Celtics couldn’t keep him getting to his preferred midrange spots.
“Nobody could stop Dejounte Murray,” said Udoka, a former Spurs assistant about his former pupil. “He got some one-on-ones and made some tough shots over pretty much everybody. Offensively, I don’t think we got quality looks. It was a little bit of both sides, defensively and offensively.”
What made this loss more demoralizing was the Celtics responded from a 40-14 deficit with stellar defense and timely offense. They went on a 74-41 run before Murray’s barrage.
After Smart’s layup, Murray countered with a short jumper. The Celtics then came back with a frazzled possession with Al Horford taking an early shot clock 20-footer that missed. Derrick White came back with two free throws to slice the Celtics lead to 3 before Jayson Tatum dived into the paint but missed a tough layup. He screamed for a foul.
Murray then maneuvered for a layup to cut it to 88-87 with two minutes left and the Celtics had lost all their momentum. Murray then forced a jump ball on Smart and White gave the Spurs the lead for a good with a 16-footer.
Jaylen Brown then missed a contested layup and Murray cashed in again. He scored 13 points in the final period. Udoka said he couldn’t find any Celtics defense to stop him off the dribble.
“You expect, Jayson, Jaylen, Marcus, some of those guys to be able to guard him one-on-one there,” Udoka said. “I think we were too tight on him at times, didn’t make him prove it with the jump shot, especially from three. They had 29 points in the second half until that (last three minutes), so we were guarding well. He just took over at the end.”
Tatum scored 24 for the Celtics but he was 9-for-23 and scored 3 points in the first half. Boston began the game missing 5 for its first 26 shots and trailed by 24 before rallying to lead by 8. Then they stopped scoring.
The Celtics came away angry for their futile start and equally futile finish.
Udoka said his team was trying too hard to get their personal games going in the opening quarter, when they began missing 15 of 16 shots.
“Across the board, you look at us at halftime and the numbers were ugly,” he said. “We talked offensively playing with more pace, playing together, not trying to do it by yourself. The second half was a different story. Just can’t dig yourself that hole.”
The Spurs gave the Celtics every chance to get back into the game in the third quarter but a series of mistakes, missed layups and bad turnovers stymied their run. Tatum, who recorded one field goal in a frustrating first half, added his second with a dunk at the 3:03 mark to slice the deficit to 7.
Still, the Celtics trailed only 70-63 entering the fourth quarter after playing mostly dreadful through the first three periods. They then went on a 25-11 run before the late-game meltdown.
The fourth-quarter collapses keep occurring. The Celtics blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead at Cleveland, 19-point third-quarter lead against Chicago, went scoreless in the final two minutes in a buzzer-beating loss at Dallas, and suffered two double-overtime losses. Six of their 10 defeats have come because of porous execution in clutch moments.
“I think down the stretch we were one score and a stop away from really, really taking control of the game,” Tatum said. “We got kind of stagnant toward the end. I think it’s not as a big deal. One 3-pointer here went in and out. It’s the little things that add up. People end to overreact. We’ve got to a better job of closing out games.”
The Celtics have been susceptible to painfully slow starts but the plan after getting trounced by the Brooklyn Nets was to punch first. Instead, Boston slept walked into another nightmarish start, allowing the 4-13 Spurs to race to an early 10-point lead while it could barely find the rim on shots.
San Antonio used midrange shooting and timely threes to jump to a 30-14 first-period lead and it began the second on a 10-2 run for a 40-16 advantage just 16 minutes in. The Spurs got anything they wanted offensively, making the extra pass or using dribble penetration to create easy baskets.
It seemingly required that embarrassing start for the Celtics to begin playing defense, and then Brown got untracked offensively. The result was a 19-2 run to draw to within 42-35. Brown scored 8 of those 19 points but he didn’t get any help from Tatum, who missed open shots, was blitzed by the Spurs defense or missed contested shots.
San Antonio then responded with a crippling 10-2 run to end the first half, including a resounding dunk by Olympian Keldon Johnson on Williams. Johnson then rode on Williams’ back to add to the humiliation, delighting the AT&T Center crowd.
“We put ourselves in that positon by how we started the game.” Williams said. “You don’t deserve to a win a game when you start out like that.”