For the Celtics, fourth quarters this season have often devolved into adventures, and more often than not, the results after the final scrambles have left them perplexed. Their game against the Spurs at TD Garden on Wednesday night offered the latest disheartening example, as the chaotic ending simply did not go Boston’s way.
The last play was the most crushing, when San Antonio appeared to gift-wrap Boston a trip to overtime when Jock Landale inbounded the ball directly to Jaylen Brown with the Spurs leading by 2 points and just 5.7 seconds left.
Brown, who had made difficult shots throughout the night, needed just four dribbles to surge from the backcourt directly to the rim. He faced some resistance once he got there, but his right-handed layup was one he could generally make with his eyes shut. In this case, however, the ball slid off the rim.
Marcus Smart grabbed the rebound and missed his putback attempt, but it came after the final buzzer anyway, allowing the Spurs to escape with a 99-97 win. San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich became the first to coach 2,000 NBA games with the same team.
“I smoked a layup,” said Brown, who scored a game-high 30 points. “Got a good steal. Going against the clock. Just blew the layup.”
Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams returned Wednesday, allowing Boston to unfurl its regular starting lineup for just the ninth time all season. Those additions, combined with a favorable upcoming schedule, figured to provide at least a short-term jolt. But Tatum never got untracked, going just 6 for 20 after missing four games because of COVID-19 protocols.
In the first half he air-balled one 3-pointer and missed two more in which there was no defender anywhere near him. He didn’t have much more luck in the paint, either, and his shooting struggles bled into the third quarter before he started attacking and drawing fouls. He was 3 for 6 from the field in the fourth quarter after going 3 for 14 prior to that. But he attempted just one shot in the game’s final four minutes.
Tatum was sidelined last January after testing positive for COVID-19, too, but he said this latest return was not as difficult.
“Felt rusty,” he said. “I did feel better than the first time I got it. I won’t say I was nervous, but it was definitely heavy on my mind last night, today, the anticipation, and it kind of lingered into the game. I kind of questioned myself out there. I was tired. But I definitely felt better than the last time. We all have to get used to it. It’s part of the new normal. It’s not going anywhere. But I’m starting to feel better.”
The Spurs, it turned out, received the most essential reinforcements Wednesday. In his first game back after being in COVID-19 protocol, Dejounte Murray once again crushed Boston, registering 22 points and 12 assists.
The Spurs, who played in Toronto on Tuesday while the Celtics received their second consecutive day of rest, snapped a four-game losing streak. The Celtics (18-20), meanwhile, missed a chance to climb back to .500., and will now need to win their next three games to secure a winning record at the season’s midway point. But that small mile marker is the least of this team’s concerns at the moment.
“We have to take advantage of these, not overlook any game or any team, but take advantage of those opportunities when they are there,” coach Ime Udoka said.
Although Brown’s late miss on the wild final play will be the indelible image from this loss, the chaotic moments that preceded it did not quite bounce Boston’s way often enough.
Neither team held a lead larger than 6 points. A layup by Brown pulled Boston within 97-95 with three minutes left before both teams locked in with strong defensive plays. Smart ripped away a steal after an offensive rebound, San Antonio’s Derrick White knocked the ball from Tatum and forced a shot-clock violation, and Smart came up with another steal that sparked a fast-break, but White stepped in and took a charge on Brown, a play the Celtics unsuccessfully challenged.
The Spurs led, 99-97, when Murray chased down his own miss and stepped on the end line, giving the Celtics possession with 40 seconds left.
After Smart missed a left-handed layup, the Celtics were in position to need to foul, but Brown stripped White at midcourt and the two were tied up for a jump ball with 14.1 seconds left.
The ball was tipped to Murray, who saved it near midcourt, but the Celtics were unable to come up with it despite having two players nearby. Boston would ultimately get a final chance, but Brown could not convert.
The Celtics are now 7-14 this season in clutch situations, or games that are within 5 points in the final five minutes.
“There was a handful of games this year that — a couple of plays we wish we could’ve had back where we might have six or seven more wins,” Tatum said. “And for sure it’s tough to think about it that way, but it’s also kind of like we’re not too far. But we can’t relent. We’ve got to figure it out now.”