Before his team faced the Spurs on Sunday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked if he would like his team to someday be just like San Antonio. And if you’re a coach, there are worse things to strive for.
Stevens said he would prefer that the Celtics become the best version of themselves rather than an alternate version of the Spurs. They do not have the same players, the same scheme, or the same rhythm, so there is no point in trying to force it. But Stevens said the Spurs’ team-first ethos is something that is compatible everywhere, and that, he said, would be something to mimic.
Then the Celtics took the floor hoping to stare down the NBA’s model franchise and grab a win that could kick-start a surge in the early part of this season. Instead, San Antonio took the lead four minutes into the first quarter and never relinquished it, holding off a Celtics flurry to take a 95-87 win.
In the locker room afterward, Celtics forward Jae Crowder stood at his stall and clapped his hands together in frustration.
“We’ll be all right,” he said to no one in particular.
And that encapsulated the general feeling after this game. The Celtics knew they had missed an opportunity, but they were also encouraged by their overall play. They felt they flustered the Spurs with their defense and had done well to claw back. Stevens was mostly upbeat.
“We played a lot better than I thought we played [against the Raptors] on Friday,” he said. “We just couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean.”
The Celtics made just 6 of 29 3-point attempts, and no one was immune to the struggles. Heading into the game, Stevens knew that San Antonio’s length would make it necessary for the Celtics to be effective from the perimeter to stretch the floor. And there were plenty of shots that offered a clear view.
But time after time, the shots thudded off the rim or spun around the inside of it before popping out. The Celtics shot 35.7 from the field overall. There is no magic elixir that can make these shots go in rather than out, so practice and patience will have to be enough.
“We’ve just got to believe in ourselves,” Stevens said, “and shoot the ball.”
Stevens is still experimenting with how to piece together rotations, and he has cautioned that it will be a gradual process. Since the NBA’s regular season stretches well into April, there is certainly plenty of time to find the most cohesive groups.
Several players have said they are still learning how to play with the team’s two new primary pieces: forwards David Lee and Amir Johnson. But Jared Sullinger, for one, was reluctant to blame something like a bad shooting night on chemistry and comfort issues.
“Honestly, that’s an excuse in my eyes,” Sullinger said. “We’re all professionals. We’re all smart guys. We’ve all got basketball IQ.”
Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge, for example, is fitting in with his new team quite well. The former Trail Blazer had 24 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 assists on Sunday, joining Kawhi Leonard as the main options on this team that is somehow both aging and ageless.
Avery Bradley had 18 points to lead the Celtics. But the guard left the game in the final seconds after fingers on his right hand were bent backward when they were caught in an opponent’s jersey.
Bradley’s hand was wrapped in medical tape after the game and he said only that the fingers were swollen. His status for Wednesday’s game against the Pacers is unclear.
Prior to suffering the injury, Bradley had sparked the Celtics’ fourth-quarter comeback.
A jump shot by Patty Mills with 8:09 left in the fourth quarter gave the Spurs a 75-61 lead and put the Celtics on the ropes. But Boston responded with a 7-0 flurry that included a Bradley 3-pointer.
A 3-pointer by Sullinger with 4:42 left pulled the Celtics within 79-75 — the closest they had been since the first half.
After the Spurs stretched their lead back to 7, Bradley drove through the lane with 1:40 left and threw down an violent one-handed dunk, making it 90-85 and putting a charge into the TD Garden crowd.
At the other end, Marcus Smart blocked Leonard, and the Celtics had the ball with a chance to make it a one-possession game. But on their next three possessions they missed two shots and turned the ball over, and the Spurs put away the win at the free throw line.
“I think Brad was trying to figure out a group that could get us going on the defensive end and be able to make some shots,” Bradley said. “And eventually he did, but I felt like it was a little too late.”