Celtics Play Spurs, Celtics Lose to Spurs


Boston again proved it could play with any team last night, including San Antonio, the choice of many to win the NBA championship. For three quarters. But in the end, it was more of the same frustration and disappointment for the Celtics as they lost to the Spurs, 92-84, before 15,586 at the FleetCenter. Another fourth-quarter collapse. Another longer-than-usual postgame team meeting. Another round of semi-introspective quotes about youth, inexperience, and inconsistency.

   "The fourth quarter - we're just going to keep working on," said coach Doc Rivers. "It just seems like one team stays aggressive on defense and offense and one team stops, and right now it's us every time. The thing that bothers me is offensively we get to the fourth quarter and all that ball movement we have for three quarters stops. And everybody tries to make a play. There is some good in that. The guys want to win, but you can't win that way.

"I just don't like our body language when things don't go right. When things don't go right, we have to learn how to fight it anyway. We all share in this. I have to do something better for [the players]. It's not what we're running. It's more I have to get them to see what we see. We have proven we can play with anybody, but we've also proven we need a little extra inside to win."

Rivers was not talking about added size or strength in the paint. After all, Boston outrebounded San Antonio, 44-29. He was speaking about the kind of mental toughness that translates into strong fourth-quarter play. The Celtics don't have it. Yet. They may not get it for a while.

"That's been the story of the year," said Paul Pierce (25 points). "Somehow, for some reason, we just melt down in the fourth quarter. It seems like it's in our head right now, but I don't know. Somehow, some way we've got to get over the hump. It's like when the fourth quarter comes, we're a different team. Somehow, some way we've got to change that."

Sparked by a 31-6 run that stretched from late in the third until late in the fourth, San Antonio came back from a 13-point deficit to take control. When the spurt started, Boston led, 66-53, with 2 minutes 48 seconds left in third. The Spurs reeled off 6 straight points to close the quarter and gain momentum heading into the final period. As soon as Robert Horry opened the fourth with a 3-pointer and brought the Spurs within 66-62, the Celtics' shoulders slumped. They hung their heads and stood around, waiting for something to happen rather than making something happen.

A layup by Malik Rose with 10:20 to go pushed San Antonio ahead for the first time in the second half. The Spurs took the lead for good on a pair of free throws by Tim Duncan (26 points). Manu Ginobili (21 points) followed with a 3-pointer that further demoralized the Celtics. Tony Parker capped the big run with a layup that gave San Antonio an 84-72 lead with 3:54 to play.

"We did a good job of hanging in and grinding it out," said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. "Guys didn't play well initially, but as the second half wound down we played very good defense, and that gave us an opportunity to generate some emotion and some juice on the offensive end and we started making some shots."

The fourth quarter marked a complete reversal of fortunes for both teams. During the first half, Boston was unwilling to let its offense dictate its defense. The Celtics' strong rebounding allowed them to overcome poor shooting (38 percent). The Celtics also helped themselves by committing just three turnovers in the first half. Boston built a 43-37 halftime lead behind the kind of effective ball movement and unselfish, aggressive play it failed to sustain. When it mattered most, the Spurs set an example of how a team accustomed to winning plays in the fourth. As a result, San Antonio improved to 8-1, marking its best start in more than two decades.

"The Celtics played an excellent game throughout," said Duncan. "I thought we just kind of persevered through it. They missed some shots. We had some stops in a row and then we started hitting our shots. It just all came together in the fourth quarter. It is always a key for us to move the ball. For our first nine games, that has kind of been our forte. When we do that well, we are a hard team to guard."

Before the game, Rivers called the San Antonio "a great model" for how an NBA team should play. After the game, it seemed a particularly prophetic comment.

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