SAN ANTONIO — Doc Rivers chose to focus his anger on the officiating Saturday night at AT&T Center. At one point in the third quarter, the Celtics had been whistled for 10 more fouls than the Spurs, so he had reason to be irritated.
But the real source of his ire was his team, as the Celtics once again showed up with their “B” game against a formidable opponent and once again were embarrassed defensively. The Celtics tried running with the superior Spurs for about 30 minutes, but every one of their turnovers seemingly resulted in San Antonio points, while the Celtics again forgot to defend the 3-point line.
It turned into a 3-point barrage in the fourth quarter as the Spurs drained 12 en route to a 103-88 win, the Celtics’ second loss in two nights and their fourth straight on the road. Tony Parker easily won his duel with Rajon Rondo, leading San Antonio with 22 points and eight assists. He scored 6 straight points in a decisive run.
Through three quarters, the Spurs were whistled for seven personal fouls to Boston’s 17. And the Celtics did not attempt a free throw from a personal foul until Paul Pierce was hacked on a jump shot at the 6:30 mark of the third quarter.
“I thought it was a miracle going on in the game tonight,” Rivers said. “Look, they go into the fourth quarter with six [actually seven] fouls total? That means they are one heck of a defensive basketball team. They were terrific. I was being sarcastic. What can you do? They shot more free throws [20 to 8]. It’s hard to win games on the road when a team goes to the line like that and we don’t go to the line.”
The Celtics yielded a season-high 12 3-pointers, which made the difference because both teams were 38 of 81 from the field. Also, the Celtics committed 12 of their 20 turnovers in the first half, and in the second half missed several layups and open jumpers that led to Spurs buckets.
When Danny Green was whistled for a foul with 2:44 left in the third, San Antonio’s sixth of the game, Rivers screamed out, “Six, for the whole game!” to anyone who would listen.
And when the Celtics weren’t fouling, they were committing turnovers. One key sequence occurred early in the third quarter when Rondo missed a layup that would have given Boston a 2-point lead. Gary Neal countered with a 3-pointer.
Pierce then missed another layup and then Green canned a 3-pointer for a 61-55 advantage. The Celtics wasted their best chance to take their first lead since early in the second quarter.
“We come in and want to play a certain way but the other teams are making adjustments,” Pierce said. “San Antonio, they’re one of the better teams in the league. They got shooters all over the court. They challenge us the way we play defense, especially the trapping style at the top of the pick-and-rolls, the way they spread you out. We’ve just got to do a better job at our rotations. For the most part we made it tough on them but they hit some tough shots.”
Rivers couldn’t criticize his team’s energy as the Celtics responded from a 7-point deficit with an 8-0 run (6 by Jason Terry) for a 31-30 lead at the 8:22 mark of the second quarter. The issue was the Celtics couldn’t contain Neal and Tiago Splitter, and San Antonio regained its 7-point lead.
Neal and Splitter were pivotal, combining for 36 points on 13-for-23 shooting and nine free throw attempts. Terry led the Celtics with three attempts.
Similar to last season, Rivers brought up the issue of conditioning, believing his team is tiring down the stretch of games.
“Tonight I thought we had a great spirit and we played as hard,” Rivers said. “I honestly thought we got fatigued. So that’s something we’re going to have to work on. We’re going to have to get in a little better shape because we want to play at that [uptempo] pace. The game was a good pace. I thought San Antonio was used to doing that and continued to do that. They were able to sustain their play, and we couldn’t.”
After Friday’s disheartening loss in Houston, the Celtics desperately wanted to get off to a more positive start. On Friday they fell behind, 17-4, and spent the first half exhausting themselves by rallying. On Saturday, they scored 8 of the game’s first 10 points, getting baskets from four players.
But the Spurs know all about balanced scoring. And they picked apart the Celtics’ defense with a 13-4 run, using layups from Splitter, who scored a season-high 23 points against the Celtics in the previous meeting. Boston’s defense was still angry after getting burned by Houston’s Greg Smith for 20 points, including seven layups. But the same thing happened again as Splitter was a difference-maker in the first half.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.