The Celtics’ problem through 12 games is defense, and the San Antonio Spurs spent all Wednesday night reinforcing that to a sold-out TD Garden crowd, which was repeatedly silenced by the wizardry of Tony Parker.
That silence turned into disgust when Spurs reserve Tiago Splitter scored at will in the second half, mostly on layups, as Boston’s small defensive cracks turned into craters. The Spurs flirted with 60 percent shooting the entire game and not even a late Celtics rally could camouflage their early-season weakness.
Parker scored 26 points and Splitter, averaging 6.7 points, scored 23 points in 26 minutes as the Spurs turned the Celtics into a .500 team again (6-6) with a 112-100 victory. San Antonio shot 58.4 percent and was 23 for 38 shooting in the second half.
It was the third time in four games the Celtics allowed at least 100 points, and they lost each of those games.
Rajon Rondo was brilliant offensively with 22 points and 15 assists, but he was battered by Parker’s dribble penetration. In one fourth-quarter sequence, Parker dribbled around Rondo and Jason Terry, and sped past a screened-out Kevin Garnett for an uncontested layup.
The crowd reacted with jeers.
Coach Doc Rivers was befuddled. The Celtics have had nearly two months to work on defense and are now allowing 99.3 points per game. Thirty-point quarters, once as dated as a BetaMax in Boston, are now common. The Spurs registered two Wednesday.
“Offensively, you score 100 points, shoot 53 percent, you’re pretty happy,” Rivers said. “We just let a team shoot 58 percent against us. We let a team shoot 50 percent from the 3 [-point line] against us. It’s tough to win a game. You shouldn’t win a game if that happens.
“We have to play smarter. We have to know our coverages better and when that happens, everybody is on the same page. It allows our rotations to be freer. I thought it was a lot of that [we didn’t do].”
Paul Pierce scored 19 points but was held scoreless in the fourth quarter as the Celtics sliced a 14-point deficit to 104-98 with 3:16 left. Tim Duncan countered with a runner and the Celtics had no more responses. After entering Sunday’s game against lowly Detroit looking to seize more momentum and confidence (another loss), they are now again bewildered.
They shot 53.2 percent and all five starters scored in double figures but it was all overshadowed by the embarrassing defensive effort.
“We give up 100 points the last couple of games, it’s definitely not our identity or something we want to build on,” Pierce said. “So that’s the things we really have to look at, how to control penetration, how we could stop pick and rolls. It just seemed we gave San Antonio pretty much everything they wanted on offense. No matter how much we score the ball, if you can’t defend the ball, it’s going to be tough on us all night long.”
In their last three losses, the Celtics have allowed the Nets, Pistons, and now Spurs to shoot 51.2 percent and average 105.6 points per game.
“It damages [our identity] a little bit, but it won’t be the first time,” said Garnett, who collected three rebounds in 31 minutes. “A good offense is always going to get the best of a better defense.”
The primary first-half issue was the inability to contain Parker, who scorched counterpart Rondo for 15 points and four assists on 7-for-10 shooting. He drained a wide-open 3-pointer to extend the Spurs’ lead to 56-48 as they ended the first half on a 14-6 run.
Rondo appeared to be pressing, especially offensively, missing five of his first six shots and forcing runners against two and three defenders. The good news for Rondo, however, was that there was no suspense about his assist streak. He collected five in the first half and five more in the first 3:09 of the third quarter to extend his streak to 35 games with 10 or more dimes.
He had eight assists in the third quarter and the offense began clicking because the emphasis was on Garnett, who scored 6 early points in the period. But each time the Celtics made runs, the Spurs would counter, primarily because of defensive slippage.
Rondo’s jumper gave the Celtics their first lead since the first quarter at 62-60 but the Spurs simply relied on Duncan and Parker, who scored all 9 points in a 9-0 spurt for a 69-62 advantage. The Celtics again climbed back, using a Jeff Green layup and Pierce technical free throw to slice the deficit to 76-74.
Rivers went with a strange lineup to end the period, including Jared Sullinger, Leandro Barbosa, Courtney Lee, and Rondo, and they allowed a critical 6-0 run to end the quarter, 4 of those by Splitter, who was nearly unstoppable on back-door plays.
His dunk extended the lead to 82-74 and the Celtics didn’t have enough left to get consistent stops in the fourth, when the Spurs converted 12 of 19 shots.
“Yeah, we were right there because nobody could stop anybody on either team,” Rivers said. “Hell, again, we shot 53 percent, so the reason we were there is because our offense allowed us to stay there. But to me, that was fools’ gold, because the way we were playing defense you’re not going to get a stop, you’re not going to win a game.
“And I think we cut it several times and either we had a turnover and they went and scored or late-clock possessions, I think they got them all. They got all the loose balls, all the late-clock scores, and that hurt us.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe