BOSTON -- Behind a meager shooting effort, the Boston Celtics lost 95-87 to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday evening. But you won't find any sulking Celtics after fighting to stay competitive late into the fourth quarter.
The Celtics trailed by 15 points in the second period but crawled back, eventually cutting the San Antonio lead to just four in the final frame.
"Today we played a lot better than I thought we played on Friday; we just couldn't throw the ball in the ocean," said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. "I felt pretty comfortable about the way we were playing."
The Celtics shot just 2-of-18 on uncontested field goal attempts in the first half, according to SportVU, evidence of their inability to "throw the ball in the ocean."
But this is a significant improvement from Friday's game against Toronto, when the ball wasn't moving in a Spurs-like fashion, as we've gotten accustomed to seeing.
"I think the whole game we can build on," said Jared Sullinger, who played solid in 23 minutes. "We didn't shoot the ball well and we still defended. I'd say two years ago, when Brad first got here, if we didn't shoot the ball well, we lost by 30. And now if we don't shoot the ball we defend, we still compete, and we still find ways to stay in the game."
The Celtics' crisp ball movement made the Spurs work hard on defense. Execution was also at a better level, as they had only 16 turnovers, their fewest of the season.
But the NBA is a make-miss league, and you have to make shots to win. After Sunday, the Celtics are just 26.6 percent from three, which ranks 27th in the NBA.
"Some guys [are]," Marcus Smart said when asked if the team is pressing. "We all are out there trying to make a big play for the team. Sometimes when you do that you kind of get out of the team [system] and it can cause frustration."
It's not unreasonable for any Celtic to be pressing right now; six players are potential free agents, and some players are fighting for a sustained role.
There has certainly been "buy in" from the players on the "evenness" of the roster, and Stevens deserves a lot of credit of that. But even Stevens openly admitted he still doesn't have the rotation figured out and that he prefers a big man rotation of four players -- not five, as it currently is.
But not everyone feels that's a legitimate reason for their struggles.
"Honestly, that's an excuse in my eyes," Sullinger said. "We're all professionals."
Excuse or not, it's early in the season, and it's somewhat unchartered territory for a team to be this deep on paper. Stevens has his hands full, and he's doing the best he can to manage the hand he's been dealt.
Fortunately, the Celtics aren't sulking. They aren't mailing it in on defense, like bottom-feeder teams do when shots aren't falling. They're still playing hard.
"I feel like some of our defensive possessions were very good ... during the game I feel like we were all helping each other out and talking out there and that made me smile," the always-optimistic Avery Bradley said after the game. "It means that we are improving as a team and that's the best thing about being able to play a game every other night is getting a chance to go out there and improve every single day."
The Celtics were rewarded for their effort in the fourth quarter, hitting 12-of-23 shots, with four three-pointers.
They just didn't get the stops necessary for the win. LaMarcus Aldridge went off, scoring 18 of his 24 points in the second half. Late in the fourth quarter, Aldridge hit three shots on consecutive trips over Sullinger. It seemed like anytime the Celtics made a push, the Spurs answered.
Some teams would fold against a team like the Spurs, after trailing most of the game, but the Boston Celtics sustained a high effort level, and defended very well. That bodes well for them with 79 games remaining.