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Spurs squander big lead but show poise in the clutch to beat the Celtics

The Spurs had a great start, but let the Celtics come back before closing strong to get the win in a nail-biter.

NBA: Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs snapped a six-game losing streak in dramatic fashion with a close 96-88 win against the Celtics. After leading by as many as 24 points, San Antonio let Boston come back in the fourth quarter, but Dejounte Murray and Derrick came up big in the clutch to lead the team to victory.

The start of the game didn’t really suggest it was going to be as entertaining a night as it ended up being. The pace was generally slow, which benefited the half-court oriented Celtics, and both teams seemed a little sloppy when trying to play with more speed. Fortunately for the Spurs, they managed to get into a rhythm first, in large part thanks to their three-point shooting, which was uncharacteristically on point. The Celtics, on the other hand, simply couldn’t buy a bucket, looking both lethargic and unlucky on offense, as some shots that would normally go in were rimming out. Everything was going San Antonio’s way, which energized the home team, even as the shorthanded second unit checked in. The 16-point lead the Spurs carried into the second period seemed more than fair.

At some point the threes were inevitably going to start falling, and San Antonio was going to have to rely on execution and defense to make up for it. Unfortunately it proved hard to maintain the necessary cohesion and focus, mainly for two reasons. First, to buy some time for some of his key players while missing Devin Vassel and Doug McDermott, Gregg Popovich had to deploy some untested lineups. Second, a string of controversial calls that went against the Spurs essentially zapped their rhythm. The offense became completely disjointed right as the Celtics were starting to find their way on both ends and a lead that at one point had reached 24 points at the start of the second period got cut down to seven with four minutes to go. Luckily the Spurs eventually woke up, in part thanks to a nasty Keldon Johnson dunk, and closed the half strong to go into the break with a double-digit lead.

Anyone who has watched the Spurs this season is aware that they struggle greatly in the third quarter, for some reason. This game wasn’t the exception, which made the separation they got earlier in the game crucial. After a slow start on offense for both teams, the Celtics started cooking, thanks to their two stars. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 16 points in the frame, as the Spurs simply couldn’t find a way to stop them. On the other end, the Silver and Black struggled to get threes and free throws, like they have most of the season, and their drives were met with resistance in the paint by Boston. Keldon Johnson had a few good plays that kept the Celtics at bay, but the lead was cut to just seven going into the closing period.

The third-quarter collapses have been the main constant of this season, but close behind are the losses in the clutch. For most of the fourth quarter, it looked like the Spurs were going to follow the script we’ve seen often this season: lose the lead, stay close, then come up short. When Boston made a run to get ahead on the scoreboard, it seemed like we were headed for another heartbreaker. Derrick White and Dejounte Murray had other ideas, fortunately. The duo combined to score 13 of San Antonio’s final 14 points and played great defense on top of it to help the Spurs hold Boston scoreless for the last three minutes. It was a thrilling win for the Silver and Black, which despite squandering a big lead showed the poise needed to get a valuable win in the clutch.

Game notes

  • The Spurs hit four threes in the first quarter and then only two the rest of the way. They also only had nine free throw attempts until the fourth quarter, when White, Johnson and Murray played more aggressively and got to the line. The familiar problems on offense were there, which explains why the score was low, but good defense and clutch plays allowed the Spurs to overcome them.
  • Speaking of clutch, the Spurs came into this game with a 1-8 record on games in which either team led by five points or fewer in the last five minutes of the game. It’s an understatement to say they struggle in close games. That’s why this win, which means little in the grand scheme of things, is important. Rebuilding teams need to learn how to win close ones and the Spurs took a step in the right direction in that area.
  • Bryn Forbes came crashing back to earth after his great game against the Hawks. Forbes went 1-for-7 from the field and missed all five of his three-point attempts. Fortunately, Tre Jones stepped up to help make up for Devin Vassell’s absence this time around. Jones had 12 points on six shots to go with two assists in nearly 18 minutes of playing time. Jones is not an outside threat at all, but his dribble penetration and cutting does help when the offense gets stagnant. Hopefully he’ll continue to get opportunities to prove himself even when Vassell and McDermott return.
  • The backup center spot remains an issue. Jakob Poeltl was fantastic, but had to play over 34 minutes on this one, as Drew Eubanks struggled and Thaddeus Young couldn’t really show his worth in just six minutes of playing time. It might be time to try Young as the first big off the bench, to see if he can make a positive impact with a more defined role. His play when Poeltl was hurt suggest he might be able to.

Play of the night

Dejounte Murray. Dagger.

SVP Awards

As we have all season, we’ll award points to the best performers of the night that go towards a season leaderboard.

3rd place (1 point) - Keldon Johnson | 17 points, 14 rebounds, two assists

Poeltl also had a double-double and was huge throughout, but Johnson’s work on the board and his timely, momentum-swinging dunks give him the edge here. Every team needs a guy who can get the fans up on their feet and hype his teammates up, especially in the regular season, when the games can feel a little meaningless. Johnson does that routinely for the Spurs.

2nd place (2 points) - Derrick White | 17 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, two blocks

White got off to a great start, then faded into the passive offensive player he’s been for most of the season. Fortunately, in the fourth quarter he seemed to realize that playing at half speed doesn’t help, especially on drives. In the first and last periods, White showed how valuable he can be for this team. Hopefully this will be the game that makes him understand that he needs to be more aggressive for the team to be successful.

1st place (3 points) - Dejounte Murray | 29 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three steals

Murray is determined to prove everyone who thinks he’s not first option material wrong. He used his length to get tough shots to fall in the paint all game and then took over down the stretch to become the closer he has been at other times this season. He even got seven trips to the line! Murray is a fantastic defender who in ideal circumstances wouldn’t have the offensive responsibility he has right now, but it’s impressive to see how unafraid he is of taking on the challenge to lead.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 32pts

2nd - Devin Vassell - 20pts

3rd - Keldon Johnson - 15pts

4th - Derrick White - 10 pts

5th - Jakob Poeltl - 9 pts

6th - Thaddeus Young - 8pts

7th - Doug McDermott - 5pts

8th - Bryn Forbes - 4pts

9th - Drew Eubanks & Lonnie Walker IV - 2pts each

10th - Jock Landale- 1pt

Next game: vs. Wizards on Monday

The Spurs will have two days off before facing the surprising Wizards, which currently have the fourth best record in the East. Hopefully after snapping a six-game losing streak, the Silver and Black can build a winning one.