The Spurs, on the second game of a back-to-back and missing their three best players, put up a surprisingly good fight against the Celtics before losing 121-116. San Antonio refused to go away and had a few opportunities to steal the win, which is all anyone could have expected under the circumstances.
The good thing about games like this one is that the lack of expectations makes the watching experience much more pleasant, even during the bad moments. A tired Spurs team missing Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl was not supposed to keep up with the Celtics, so when the shots missed early and Boston got what it wanted on offense, there was no frustration. Then the strangest thing started to happen, as San Antonio managed to keep up despite being in a huge talent deficit. Romeo Langford and Jeremy Sochan were just trying to will their way to the bucket for a starting unit that lacked spacing and then when the second unit checked in, their more balanced skill sets allowed the Spurs to mostly keep up on offense. After one, the visitors were only up three points, which was a lower margin than anyone could have anticipated.
Eventually the superior Celtics were going to pull away and a bad start to the second quarter expedited the process. Boston scored in five straight possessions while only Zach Collins got a bucket for the Spurs in their first few trips down the floor. With Tatum joining Brown in absolutely dominating on offense, it seemed like the visitors were going to run away with it, but once again the plucky Spurs refused to let them. With Collins and Josh Richardson leading the way, they got enough buckets to make up for the many they were giving up on the other end, preventing the Celtics from expanding on their double-digit lead. At times it felt like the only thing keeping the guys in green from creating more separation was their own complacency, but the Silver and Black deserved credit for fighting hard enough to go to the break just down nine.
Normally it wouldn’t be dangerous to let a rebuilding team missing starters hang around for a half, but the Spurs, for better or for worse, don’t operate like a normal tanking team that is just happy to take a loss after putting up a fight for a while. Gregg Popovich made an adjustment and put Langford on Brown to slow him down and the starters came out sharper on offense. Suddenly San Antonio was looking more than competent and closing in on the Celtics. Tre Jones was driving to the rim, Collins was getting buckets inside and Boston was looking sloppy on offense and missing Marcus Smart, who had to leave the game with an injury. The Spurs actually had several opportunities to regain the lead that unfortunately they couldn’t capitalize on but a game that was supposed to be easy for the Celtics on paper became a close battle.
As the final period started with San Antonio down only four, it was understandable to get excited without actually expecting a win, but it quickly seemed like this incredibly entertaining game would have a boring end, as the Celtics carved up a double-digit lead midway through the quarter. These Spurs were not going to let that happen. They once again clawed their way back into it by having Langford target Tatum on offense and playing good, energetic defense despite clearly being tired. With 37 seconds to go, Josh Richardson hit a three after a timeout to tie the game at 114. It took a tough Tatum fadeaway jumper, a fantastic defensive sequence by Robert Williams and an offensive rebound by Al Horford after a missed Tatum free throw for the best team in the East to finally put the shorthanded and Spurs away.
- Zach Collins, starting in Poeltl’s place, tied a career-high in points with 18 and assists with five, providing much-needed offense. He also pulled down 12 rebounds and tried his best on the other end, despite not having a lot of success, just like the rest of the team. Just a fantastic game for Collins, who is looking more and more like the player many thought he could become before all the injuries.
- The Spurs had eight players in double digits and no one with more than 18 points. They also had nine players with at least an assist. The ultimate team effort on offense for a squad missing its two leading scorers.
- Langford and Richardson almost had their revenge win against the team that traded them to San Antonio. The wing duo combined for 32 points and contributed in other areas. Richardson was huge as a playmaker and marksman and Langford played fantastic defense all night long. There’s no way the Celtics regret moving them for Derrick White, who had 11 assists and three blocks in his return to the AT&T Center, but the Spurs are surely happy with the return they got too.
- Tre Jones had a terrible first half in terms of scoring but dropped 15 points in the second half, when he attacked confidently early in the shot clock. For such a young guy, his mindset is impressive. He doesn’t get rattled easily and he always plays hard, even when he’s struggling.
- Jeremy Sochan and Keita Bates-Diop had their hands full all game with Tatum and Brown, so it’s not surprising that KBD was a non-factor on offense and Sochan only had good moments. They couldn’t really do much against that duo but facing elite scorers will be a good learning experience for Sochan.
- Malaki Branham, Stanley Johnson and Doug McDermott all contributed off the bench in different ways while managing to combine for 33 points. The only sub that struggled was Charles Bassey, who played with energy but looked out of rhythm.
Play of the night
Was this a botched baseline hammer play designed for McDermott or did Pop want the Celtics to think that was the play only to spring Richardson open with a Collins screen? Who knows. Either way, huge shot by Richardson, who always seems unafraid of the big moments.
Next game: at Memphis Grizzlies on Monday
The Spurs will have a mini series against the Grizzlies, with their next two games being in Memphis. A win in either matchup seems unlikely, but not impossible after the last two performances.