Jayson Tatum scored 34, Jaylen Brown added 29, but it was the bench presence of Malcolm Brogdon (23 points on 8/12 shooting, 7 assists, and a team-high +10) and Robert Williams (10 points, 11 rebounds, 2 steals, 4 blocks) that sparked the Celtics and gave them a narrow 121-116 victory to close out their road trip.
The Celtics had a 112-101 lead with six minutes remaining, but the Spurs tied it in the final minute. Some clutch defensive plays from Williams and Derrick White (11 assists and 3 blocks) sealed the game. The Spurs finished with eight guys scoring double figures.
On the surface, this matchup featured a team with the NBA’s best record and fully healthy roster against one of the league’s worst teams playing without its three best players (Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, and Jacob Poeltl). But just looking at the last 15 games, these teams are shockingly similar. The Spurs have a 7-8 record and 115.6 offensive rating, while the Celtics are 8-7 with a 112.7 O-RTG. As we learned from Tuesday’s debacle in Oklahoma City, not respecting a less talented opponent is an easy formula for a disappointing loss.
The Celtics played stout defense from the tip, forcing seven San Antonio misses to open the game. Romeo Langford, starting his 12th game of the season, got them on the board with a slicing layup. In Derrick White’s first game against his former team, he responded with an and-1, and the Celtics built an early double-digit lead. The Spurs honored him with this tribute video:
White had a strong first quarter, tallying 7 points, 3 assists, and 2 blocks. Malaki Branham and Stanley Johnson led a bench unit that scored 16 first-quarter points, getting the Spurs back in the game after they looked overmatched at the beginning. The Celtics led 33-30 after twelve minutes.
Tatum scored 10 points to open the second quarter, prompting Gregg Popovich to call two timeouts in four minutes. Pop’s famous for his quick early-quarter timeouts, but tonight he seemed particularly dissatisfied with his team’s effort. Zach Collins looked like he got the message, as he scored 10 second-quarter points on 4/4 shooting.
With a minute left in the half, Robert Williams made this play that temporarily turned NBC Boston’s Brian Scalabrine into a fan:
ROB WITH THE BLOCK AND THE FINISH pic.twitter.com/xOnZIwXzfW— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 8, 2023
The Celtics led 68-57 at half. It should have been more, but they missed a few free throws and had two turnovers in the final minute. Nonetheless, the Celtics played an impressive half of basketball, shooting 55 percent from the field and 53 percent from three while collecting 17 assists. The Jays combined for 35 and Malcolm Brogdon scored 11 points on 4/5 shooting. For the Spurs, Josh Richardson scored 10 off the bench, and although they struggled from deep, they shot 53 percent from two-point range.
The Celtics could have made a statement with a strong third-quarter start, but instead they opened shooting 1/6 with two turnovers. A Langford teardrop capped a 13-3 Spurs run, and the Celtics 11-point lead was cut to one. San Antonio made it competitive, but they could never take a lead.
Timelord checked in at 3:43 and immediately injected life into the game. First, he had an outstanding transition block on Branham, then found Tatum on a backdoor cut, and finished the quarter with a baseline dunk off a Brogdon assist. The Celtics took a 93-89 lead into the 4th quarter. Tre Jones led the Spurs with 11 third-quarter points and Marcus Smart went back to the locker room with a knee contusion.
Brodgon and Doug McDermott traded buckets to open the final period, then Sam Hauser rattled in a three to give the Celtics a 103-95 lead. Following a timeout, Joe Mazzulla gave Brogdon the keys to the offense on every possession, and he proceeded to slice and dice whatever coverage the Spurs were throwing at him. He found Brown on a cut to the rim then set up Tatum for a three, and Boston’s lead grew to 11.
Boston maintained their double digit lead until five minute mark when the Spurs came roaring back. Jeremy Sochan scored on two straight possessions to cut the score to 114-109, then Langford’s 17-footer with 1:42 remaining cut the lead to three. He came back the next possession and converted on a layup, then Richardson hit a wing three to tie the game at 116 with 37 seconds to play.
Tatum responded with an effortless one-legged baseline jumper, and on the next defensive possession, Timelord played lockdown defense on Langford and Al Horford secured the rebound. It was a bit of an adventure inbounding the ball, and Tatum missed a free throw that would have put the game out of reach, but Boston secured the offensive rebound and Brogdon hit two free throws to cap a 121-116 win.
The Celtics improve to 28-12 and return home on Monday to play the Bulls.