You didn't really think the Celtics, minus Paul Pierce and Wally Szczerbiak, had a chance against the Spurs last night. You didn't really think Delonte West facing Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen defending Ryan Gomes, and Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins taking turns against Tim Duncan favored the Celtics in any way.
You didn't really think the Celtics would be able to come back from a 23-point third-quarter deficit. You didn't really think a small Celtics lineup would rattle the playoff-tested, championship-contending Spurs.
Even the most optimistic among the 15,928 fans at TD Banknorth Garden last night would be hard-pressed to claim they saw what was coming in the fourth quarter. Some made for the exits after the third. But a blowout turned into a tight contest down the stretch as the Celtics staged an 18-5 run with the same lineup (West, Gomes, Jefferson, Rajon Rondo, and Allan Ray) that sparked a comeback against the Wizards Saturday night.
But with just enough big shots (a driving layup by Manu Ginobili, a dunk that turned into a 3-point play by Duncan) and free throws down the stretch, San Antonio hung on to win, 93-89. The loss extended Boston's current skid to eight games and its losing streak against San Antonio to 18.
"They're not giving up," said coach Doc Rivers. "Guys are fighting. We just can't get over the hump. So we've just got to keep going and keep fighting and trying to do it. I'm proud of them. They're playing so hard I want to just try to squeeze a win out for them so they can relax."
The Celtics nearly squeezed out an improbable win. The first indication they might be gathering themselves for something big came when West nailed a 3-pointer with 3:41 remaining that brought the home team within 7 points, 85-78. On the other end, Jefferson (26 points, 14 rebounds) blocked a shot by Duncan. Then, Rondo snatched the ball from Duncan and Gomes finished the possession with a layup.
The Spurs clung to an 85-82 lead with 2:19 left before Ginobili stretched the advantage back to 5 with a driving layup.
The Celtics needed another quick field goal to sustain their pressure. Instead, they committed a shot-clock violation. Duncan came through with a 3-point play, extending the Spurs' edge to 90-82 with 1:18 remaining.
The young Celtics shrugged off their mistakes and scored twice (Jefferson layup, West 23-footer on the break) and, once again, closed within 3 (90-87) with 36.3 seconds remaining. Another 23-footer by West with 8.7 seconds remaining brought Boston within 2 (91-89).
But Gomes could not foul Michael Finley quickly enough and precious seconds slipped by. Finley made both free throws and San Antonio held a 4-point lead with 3.2 seconds left. A last-second 3-pointer by West was no good.
"It should not have been that close," said Duncan (21 points, 9 rebounds). "We allowed them to get back into the game and it's something we have to work on."
Added Ginobili (15 points, 6 rebounds): "We play well for stretches, and then we kind of get lost."
San Antonio seemed a little lost when Boston staged a 7-0 run midway though the first quarter, breaking an 8-8 tie. Gomes (20 points, 7 rebounds) started the spurt with a pair of free throws, but the run was really a tribute to the hard work of West (season-high 27 points) on both ends. He contributed a pair of steals, a 17-footer, and a 3-point play.
When Gomes hit a reverse layup, he gave Boston a 20-12 advantage. It was the high point of the contest for the home team until the excitement of the final few minutes. The Celtics finished the first quarter ahead, 24-20.
There were signs of what was come when the Spurs opened the second quarter with a 14-2 run. Brent Barry and Ginobili were hitting from 3-point range. Duncan was good for layups and free throws.
Meanwhile, the Celtics did not help themselves as they committed one turnover after another. Outmatched in every way, there was nothing they could do to get back in the game in that quarter as San Antonio entered halftime ahead, 50-38.
With a 13-2 run early in the third, San Antonio stretched its advantage to 23 points (65-42) on a driving layup by Bowen. The Celtics returned the favor with their own 13-2 run near the end of the third and closed within 12 (75-63) with 7.2 seconds remaining in the period.
The Celtics trailed, 77-63, at the end of the third, but that run was far from the last gasp by the home team.
"The fans got their money's worth," said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. "They saw two games, and I don't think it said that on the ticket."
If fans stayed for both games -- the rout followed by the close contest -- they also saw a glimpse of what many hope will be the Celtics' future. That is easy to admit.