Brad loves Pop, Pop loves Brad, Brad loves the Spurs way, and Pop has a picture of the Celtics' John Havlicek hanging up in his office. But that's where the lovefest ends because someone had to win and lose on Sunday.
The majority of the game wasn't competitive but late in the fourth quarter, it suddenly was. After digging a 15-point hole, a Marcus Smart floater with 5:25 remaining drew the Celtics within two possessions at 77-72, but they never got any closer. First, it was new Spur LaMarcus Aldridge hitting three straight jump shots to keep Boston at arm's length. And then Kawhi Leonard happened, hitting a corner three and long jumper to silence the Garden crowd for good.
The Celtics had gone toe-to-toe with one of the league's best and were competitive until the very end. They matched them defensively throughout the game but just didn't have the guns when it mattered most. And that's really the difference between this spunky bunch and the five-time world champs. Brad Stevens has made remarkable strides over the last two seasons in mimicking San Antonio's style and mindset, but the fact remains: the Spurs have stars and the Celtics are still trying to find theirs.
Whether they're the old Big Three of Manu Ginobli, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker (who have now won more games than Bird, McHale, and Parish) or the new blood of Leonard, Aldridge, and Danny Green, the Spurs have always had stars to fuel their unselfish, team-first system. That couldn't have been more evident Sunday afternoon. While Brad Stevens had his team fighting for every point and literally diving on the floor for loose balls, Popovich remained cool and collected because he knew he had his closers. The Spurs have been touted for their teamwork and selflessness, but don't let that fool you: San Antonio is loaded and they've been loaded for a long time.
So, can Ainge and Stevens replicate Pop's vision in Boston? They're certainly trying, just like several teams have since "the Spurs Way has become basketball's way." The most recent and successful example has been Atlanta's 60-win season last year under Mike Budenholzer. It's been an impressive two years for Bud and the Hawks, but let's not forget that he took over a team that had been to the playoffs for six straight seasons and already had Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague, and Demarre Carroll in the fold. Stevens has not had that luxury. Even another Pop protege, Brett Brown in Philadelphia, will have top shelf talent at his disposal (at some point).
For Stevens and Boston, when the dust settled after a two-year tear down of the franchise, only Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger remained from the Doc era. Danny Ainge has since drafted, traded for, and signed players that fit his coach's schemes, but aside from Isaiah Thomas, he hasn't armed him with top tier talent, at least not to the level of Atlanta's and certainly not of San Antonio's. So while Stevens has them playing the right brand of ball, his team is still very young and he has to simultaneously develop them while working them into the rotation. Now, we're seeing the growing pains.
It's too early to start having this conversation, but last week, Toucher & Rich brought up the s-word with Danny Ainge and he had this very measured response about the Celtics current roster: "who knows if one of them could develop and become a superstar player?"
We're only three games into the season, but there's that word again: "star" and more specifically, "superstar." We're going to be hearing about that all year. All through training camp, the team has been touted as deep and talented, but if the team continues to struggle, Ainge might want to consider consolidating some of his players and turn upside into star-to-All-Star level talent.
The Celtics lost on Sunday to the superior team, but in all honestly, it's not our time yet. Not to sound too much like the excuse-making Jim Buss, but although it's technically Year #3 of the rebuild, it's realistically Year #1. Some might even argue that the clock doesn't start until the Brooklyn draft picks come into play over the next three consecutive summers. If all three Nets' first rounders are top-5 picks, that could accelerate the rebuild exponentially.
Or maybe, just maybe, like Ainge suggests, that talent already exists on this roster.
I saw something on Sunday that I didn't expect to see. After such a demoralizing effort against the Raptors on Friday, I was worried that the Celtics would lay down against the Spurs, but at the end of the game, the Celtics looked poised and confident. After shooting a dismal 35.7%, they were right there. There were the highlight plays that sparked the comeback--Bradley's monster dunk on Kawhi Leonard or Smart's dive on the loose ball and pass to Jae Crowder--but in those final five minutes, what stuck out to me was how calm the team was and you could really see it on the defensive end.
Coming out of a timeout, CSNNE's Abby Chin reported that Brad Stevens had a smile on his face and a glean in his eye, said "let's go," and confidently drew up a play. After an Aldridge jumper stretched the lead to seven, that ATO was an unexpected above-the-break 3 for Sullinger and he canned it in rhythm.
After spending the preseason as the 5th Beatle in Stevens' big man rotation, Sully has responded when it mattered with three straight strong outings. The criticisms about his weight are valid, but you have to like what we've seen out of the 23-year-old. It ultimately didn't warrant a contract extension yesterday, but if he can continue this level of consistency, you can bet that he'll be a Celtic next season and for years to come.
The teams would trade baskets and free throws including this drive and dunk from AB:
Needing a stop on the ensuing possession, 6'4 Smart drew the assignment of checking the 6'7 Leonard on the block. Smart held his ground and swallowed up Leonard's hook shot and forced a shot clock violation:
A loss is a loss is a loss, but all these moments are building to something. We can wring our hands over the rotations, who Stevens is playing when, and a lack of stars on the roster, but the clouds of uncertainty are clearing and there are bright spots on this team.