At the top of tonight’s home broadcast on NBC Sports Boston, longtime play-by-play man Mike Gorman called the .500 mark “elusive.” He’s not wrong to call it such, seeing that it certainly hasn’t existed in the rearview mirror as much as it has in previous seasons. But it’s also worth noting that there was absolutely no reason for Boston not to reach that mark tonight. For the first time in a long time, the Celtics were relatively healthy. Only Payton Pritchard (health/safety protocols) and Brodric Thomas (back) appeared on tonight’s injury report. A win felt inevitable, and not just because the 14-22 San Antonio Spurs — a team I sometimes refer to as the human embodiment of “meh” — were in town.
Perhaps what’s actually elusive for this Celtics team is the ability to ever put together an outing that feels like they’ve matched or reached their peak or their ceiling. Even when Jaylen Brown pours in 30 points, just days after scoring 50 and amidst a four-game streak of 134 total points, he fails to close things out down the stretch, and his team fails to look like one that is complete in its composition or performance. Even with everyone vital to their game plan available and healthy, for the most part, they can’t take down the team that currently sits at 11th in the Western Conference. Even when Marcus Smart plays as close to an All-Star effort as he can get. Even when the ball movement is as pinpoint as possible. Even...forget it. New year, same team. This record isn’t just two games below .500 following tonight’s 99-97 loss. It’s broken entirely.
This recap sounds overly pessimistic to start; there’s plenty to take away from this game that could feasibly elicit a smile. In the first half, plenty went Boston’s way. They shot the ball well — 48.9 percent overall. Other than the three-for-11 performance from Jayson Tatum through two quarters, the rest of the squad played efficiently on offense. But on defense, Boston failed to keep a lukewarm Spurs team at bay. They allowed them to shoot 53 percent from three in the first half, and let every player from Dejounte Murray (12 points in the half) to Devin Vassell (14) to Jock Landale (a subtle, productive six points) contribute plentiful offense. San Antonio’s 58-56 halftime advantage didn't feel as slim as it was. Nevertheless, Boston remained close.
Spurs have a lot of good-ish guys— CelticsBlog (@celticsblog) January 6, 2022
The third began exactly as any Celtic fan would hope for: strong, fast, streamlined offense across the board, led primarily by Jaylen “when you’re hot, you’re hot” Brown, who scored seven of Boston’s first 10 points to start the second half.
The Spurs kept apace, though; while Brown and Smart remained the only viable sources of offense for the Celtics, the Spurs exercised patience and capitalized accordingly. This is a team that doesn’t often force shots or passes, let alone do anything at all ill-advised. They keep moving until an open shot appears, and when they do find the most efficient shot, it's often converted into points off an assist.
That’s something they do best; the Spurs tied for the league lead in assists per game (28.4) with the Golden State Warriors, who distribute the ball as though the “sharing is caring” lessons of our kindergarten days have been beaten into them by Gregg Popovich at practice upon practice. It works for them; even when matched by their opponent (Boston had 19 assists tonight compared to San Antonio’s 20), they outdo the opposition in terms of overall efficiency and situational awareness. Nevertheless, Boston stayed close, trailing just 80-77 through three.
It just wasn’t close enough. With just over four minutes left in the fourth quarter, a made pull-up from Derrick White (who finished with 17 points on the night) pushed the Spurs lead to 95-89, and forced Ime Udoka to call timeout. He appeared to tell Jaylen Brown “that can’t happen.” Which play he was referencing doesn’t really matter, seeing that it could’ve feasibly applied to any number of Boston’s empty possessions from the night, whether offensive or defensive.
The worst part about a game like tonight’s is the fact that Boston never faltered in terms of their energy, nor did their fans. They were simply outdone by athletic, savvy responses from the likes of Murray, Keldon Johnson, and a constant at-the-rim presence from Jakob Poeltl, one that not even Robert Williams III seemed capable of matching. When Tatum appeared to have a mismatch against White late in the game, down two, the spry Spur challenged Tatum’s jumper with textbook defense, forcing a shot-clock violation. If one play could serve as a microcosm for the evening, it would be that one. The Celtics did literally everything right on that play... but couldn’t finish it off.
seriously? that's how it ends?— CelticsBlog (@celticsblog) January 6, 2022
Even when Brown poked away the ball from White with under 20 seconds remaining, and both players dove, it went to a jump ball, one that Brown lost. Murray saved the ball as it started traveling toward the sideline, and his toss sailed through two Celtics hands. And even when Poeltl tossed the game’s final inbound directly to Brown, Boston’s star of late failed to finish a layup through contact.
Jaylen Brown misses the game tying lay up... pic.twitter.com/JsWxefjU8l— DailySportsDosage (@SportsDSD_) January 6, 2022
The whole game went that way — even when San Antonio tried to throw the game away, the Celtics tossed it back into the Spurs’ lap. 99-97 was the final; Boston falls to 18-20 with the loss.
For more postgame coverage of Boston’s disappointing loss, tune into the the Garden Report Postgame Show LIVE on CLNS Media right after the game. Join A Sherrod Blakely, Bobby Manning, Josue Pavon, Jimmy Toscano and host John Zannis for a full breakdown. Plus, the guys will discuss Tatum’s return and the Smart-Schroder duo.