Before Saturday's game at the AT&T Center, Celtics coach Brad Stevens spoke about not being surprised that the Spurs are leading the league in defensive rating and fewest points allowed per game.
"Not after playing against them," he said, referencing the teams' earlier meeting in Boston in which the Spurs held his squad to 87 points on 35.7 percent shooting and just 6-of-29 from the three-point line. "To be a good defensive team you have to have a sense of purpose that's a little bit bigger than yourself, and I think everybody would say that here that's one of the things they've thrived on."
He then listed the principle ingredients in their shut-down stew, pausing only to rhetorically ask how many NBA All-Defensive teams Tim Duncan has been named to. (It's eight First-Team and six Second-Team selections so far, if you're wondering.)
Meanwhile, the Celtics came into the game a very respectable third in defensive rating. They have some good personnel on the perimeter at that end with Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart (though he's missed most of the season, including Saturday's tilt, with a knee injury), but no real imposing rim protectors, so it's kind of amazing they've been as effective as they have.
Naturally the game ends 108-105 with the Spurs shooting the lights out for three quarters and then the Celtics roaring back in the fourth with a 34-point quarter and six triples. That's basketball for you.
After a rough start that had the Spurs down 18-8 halfway through the first quarter, with Bradley getting loose on screens and hitting everything, San Antonio got back into the game with their bench. Stevens had mentioned before the game how his bigs may have more shooting range than their Spurs counterparts, but that he was concerned about the size difference down low. He proved prophetic as first Aldridge and then the tandem of Boris Diaw and David West took turns abusing whoever happened to be matched up against them, whether it was Amir Johnson, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk or Tyler Zeller. The Spurs bigs combined for 19 points in the first quarter
A couple of examples...
Aldridge and Diaw combined for 15 more points in the second quarter, with Bobo already setting a season-high for himself by halftime. West also tied his season-high with 10 and it was the first time all season when both scored well in the same game. The Spurs bullied the Celtics inside, with 26 points in the paint on 13-of-21 shooting, hitting at a 59.5 percent clip overall, but they had a relatively low 58 points because they'd made just three from downtown and only five free throws. The Celtics were hanging in with uncharacteristically hot three-point shooting.
An interesting twist in the rotation Pop tried in the first half was playing Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green with the bench units and giving Kyle Anderson some run with the regular starters. It's something I've been hoping he'd try for a while now and it seemed to work well for both the reserves and for Anderson.
The Spurs had their best defensive quarter in the third and stretched out their lead as high as 17 points, getting balanced scoring in the period from Leonard, Duncan, Tony Parker, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili, who all scored between four and six. Ironically, even though our combatants were tied with one another for third in the league at 24.8 assists per game, it was not a quarter for passing fetishists. The two teams combined for 50 points and 18 buckets, but only four of them were assisted, all by the Spurs.
It mostly went like this.
The Spurs cooled down some in the fourth, but so did the visitors. It was still a 15-point lead with 7:25 remaining after a spinning layup from Diaw. But with a with a 14-1 run over the next 3:54, Boston made it a one-possession game as Crowder and Bradley hit threes and Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner got to the cup easily with Aldridge protecting the rim with a small-ball lineup.
With 3:43 to go, Pop did something fascinating. For the first time all season, he subbed out Aldridge in a tight spot. In came Duncan (and Ginobili for Danny Green) instead. It didn't help matters defensively, the red-hot Celtics still scored on six of their final nine possessions, but the Spurs at least found the right combination to make a few plays of their own down the stretch to hold on, with Ginobili scoring seven of his 15 in the closing minutes and both Green and Leonard sinking critical freebies.
"Anytime you have a game on the line in the last few plays, you got to have some discipline," explained Diaw after. "That is what we did there at the end of the game. We had some good plays. Some we used to do and don't see enough these days because when you're up by 10, you don't use those plays."
Thank the basketball gods for The Manu. pic.twitter.com/569pWklFNv— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) December 6, 2015
Leave it to the old guys. That's a 77 year old hook up right there. Spurs up five. pic.twitter.com/oaRaDTZ98a— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) December 6, 2015
The Biggest Three, since 1902. pic.twitter.com/o3Jzg8bbqN— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) December 6, 2015
"I think this game will help us get better because I thought they moved better without the ball," said Popovich of Stevens' Celtics. "They executed what they wanted to do better than we did. We just had an experienced group that executed some stuff down the stretch. It got us over."
Man, no kidding. The Celtics made 12 threes in all, a season-high for any Spurs opponent, and it's incredibly rare to win in today's NBA when somebody outscores you by 21 from the downtown. San Antonio did finish with 44 points in the paint, but it was a game that could have gone either way. It was shocking for me to discover that Boston is tied-for-21st in the league in three-point percentage (32.4) and only 18th in offensive rating (101.0) because they were reminiscent of Mike Budenholzer's Hawks from last season the way they furiously and beautifully screened and cut and moved and pinged the ball around.
If we're starting the league over with all the players available for us to draft, I'd be okay with somebody else having the first few picks as long as I got to have Stevens as my coach. He's that impressive.
(Okay, I'd want to draft no lower than sixth. Leonard would last that long, right?)
Stevens was complimentary about the Spurs offense too, observing that "They're starting to really play the way they've always played. When we first played them three games in they were trying to find that more than now. Now it looks like they're starting to churn. Now it looks like they're becoming the Spurs."
It'll be curious to see if the Aldridge thing was an anomaly or if "becoming the Spurs," means sticking with the guys who have continuity together to close out games.
Your Three Stars:
1. Boris Diaw
2. Manu Ginobili
3. David West