SAN ANTONIO — The game seemed winnable for the Celtics. They essentially dominated the first half, leading by as many as 12, but as they have been guilty of doing this season, they toyed with the game, wasted possessions, and allowed the Spurs to keep close.
And then it happened. The Spurs couldn’t miss. LaMarcus Aldridge was Wilt Chamberlain in the paint. Patty Mills was splashing threes from the sideline and the Celtics were just plain helpless.
A game that could have provided a momentum boost going into 2019 turned into another disheartening defeat as San Antonio used a 46-point third quarter on 76 percent shooting to pull away and win, 120-111, at AT&T Center.
The 46-point third period was San Antonio’s highest scoring quarter in 25 years.
Aldridge finished with 32 points, but it was San Antonio’s 3-point shooting that made the difference. Ironically, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich complained prior to the game about teams placing too much emphasis on 3-point shooting .
Each time the Celtics made a run, one of their reserves or lesser-known players — shooting guard Bryn Forbes, Mills, or Davis Bertans — canned a back-breaking 3-pointer. After starting the game 2-for-9 from the 3-point line, the Spurs hit 12 of their final 17 attempts, including 10 in the second half.
In the first half Saturday against Memphis, the Celtics allowed 64 points on 20-for-24 shooting on 2-pointers. On Monday, the Celtics allowed the Spurs to shoot 67.4 percent in the second half and score 74 points.
And they walked away wounded, literally. Kyrie Irving was scratched in both eyes in a fourth-quarter collision with Marco Belinelli and said he had a scratched cornea in his right eye. He may require goggles for the next set of games.
“He smacked the [expletive] out of me,” Irving said, shaking his head in disappointment about the defensive effort. “He caught me pretty good.”
Irving continued on the defense.
“That’s the difference, you never have the Spurs right where you want them,” he said. “They’re just too well-coached, play too hard. They just started really driving to the basket. We had no rim presence. We really couldn’t get a rebound and they had 46 in the third. You can’t win an NBA basketball game playing that way.”
Without Aron Baynes (fractured left hand) and rookie Robert Williams (groin strain), the Celtics had no one to even slightly disrupt the Spurs dribble penetration, so DeMar DeRozan or Forbes or Derrick White dribbled unimpeded into the paint for floaters or layups or dishes to teammates for a corner 3.
White, who scored a career-high 22 points, scored six of his eight field goals in the paint. He’s a point guard.
“We have to play twice as hard because we’re smaller,” Irving said. “So they’re just pounding it in, going at our bigs, making Marcus Morris guard [power forwards] and Al [Horford] guard these big [centers]. They’re just launching at the basket and getting offensive boards, so most of our lineups are featured with four guards, so that makes our job on the boards a lot tougher. And it just showed. It’s been showing over the last few games.”
The third quarter was a statistical nightmare for the Celtics. The Spurs hit 19 of their 25 field goals, including all five 3-point attempts, turning a 65-60 deficit into an 84-69 lead with 2:50 left in the quarter.
Terry Rozier tried sparking a rally with three consecutive 3-pointers, but the Spurs had an answer each time.
“A 46-point third quarter, you’re going to get beat,” Brad Stevens said. “It started with them physically overpowering us, getting to the rim clearly like a mindset of ‘We’re going to go the rim and make you stop us,’ from a physical perspective and once we started really sucking [the defense] in, they started spraying [the ball] all over and making every shot.”
Jaylen Brown enjoyed his best game of the season with a team-high 30 points, but he seemed to be the only Celtic offensively engaged. Irving finished with just 16 points on 7-for-14 shooting while Jayson Tatum added 12 but missed all five 3-point attempts.
Horford got pounded in his matchup with Aldridge, finishing with just 9 points and 3 rebounds in 25 minutes. Daniel Theis, who has struggled to defend post-dominant centers this season, couldn’t check Aldridge either.
“We were definitely unprepared for them, of just that third-quarter physicality,” Irving said. “It seems like they were just waiting in the weeds and just like any Spurs team, I’m pretty sure Pop [Popovich] got in their rear ends and told them to play hard or you’re not stepping on the floor.
“And you can see that maximum go up and our level stayed the same and you can’t do that against a great team, a well-coached team like the Spurs.”
It’s a disappointing end to what has been a topsy-turvy 2018 for the Celtics. They relented in the second half against the Rockets and allowed 127 points, played brilliantly in the second half to steal a win at Memphis and then allowed the Spurs to break down their defense at will.
“It’s tough because they have one of the best coaches in the game; he makes adjustments pretty quick once we start figuring it out,” Morris said. “If we had the same energy that they had [late] in the fourth quarter, I think we would have put ourselves in a better position to win.”