The two teams with best records in their respective conferences squared off on Wednesday night in Boston and following a classic battle, the Celtics edged the Spurs 105-103, in a nail-biter game some saw as a preview for the NBA finals.
The Celtics, coming into the game with a 26-7 record, offered plenty of offensive fire, with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kevin Garnett all members of the NBA’s elite 20,000 point club. Garnett, however, still suffering from a right leg muscle strain, did not play and is expected to be out for another week.
To be expected, the Spurs, bringing a 29-5 record with them, started off sluggish after a hard-fought game against the New York Knicks the night before. Their lackluster start forced coach Gregg Popovich to call two timeouts within the first three minutes of the game, visibly unhappy with his team’s defense.
"We looked like we were out for a walk in the park," Popovich is quoted in the San Antonio Express News.
Ray Allen started well, scoring six of Boston’s first seven points, celtics hit their first three shots, all by Allen. By game’s end, he would be the biggest factor for either team.
Manu Ginobili’s pre-game comments indicated the Spurs were ready for the Celtics, but the Spurs had cobwebs early. Boston went on an early 9-2 run and went up 14-7.
Allen,with his quick catch and shoot release, had ten points in the first quarter.
The Spurs defense faced their second opponent in as many nights who would shoot over 60 percent in the first quarter, with Boston hitting 63 per cent of their shots. The Spurs were lucky to be down by only two as their field goal shooting came in at 48 percent.
San Antonio tied the game at 25-all just before the end of the quarter, but Jermaine O’Neall followed with a a shot at the buzzer and the Celtics were up by two at the end of the first quarter.
With nine minutes in the second quarter, the Celtics had moved ahead by four, 34-30, and shortly thereafter and Popovich called another time out. The Spurs responded and took their first lead of the game, 35-34, on a Tony Parker layup near the eight minute mark.
At 7:33 Parker hit another shot that put the Spurs up by three, 37-34. That made it a 12-2 Spurs run and Celtics coach Doc Rivers called a timeout.
Shaquille O’Neal, in the twilight of his career, came into the game averaging 10 points and five rebounds per game but was not a factor, missing all three of his free throw attempts in the first half.
Parker came alive in the second quarter, giving the Spurs a 43-38 lead on his fourth basket of the game.
Unlike Tuesday in New York, the Spurs were able to put pressure on the Celtics in the first half, and the score was indicative of that effort. With three minutes left in the first half, the Spurs were up by five. A Ginobili foul on Shaquille O’Neal, in the act of shooting, sent him to the line. O’Neal then missed both attempts.
O’Neal, in the twilight of his career, came into the game averaging 10 points and five rebounds per game but was not a factor, missing all three of his free throw attempts in the first half.
The rest of the quarter remained tight, with the Spurs never able to create more than a four point lead.
With 39 seconds left, the Spurs had attempted only three free throws, but Parker made two, giving the Spurs a two point lead. Allen, with that trademark catch-and-shoot, tied it at 49 but the Spurs made a shot just before the buzzer and took a 51-49 lead into the locker room.
Allen led the Celtics with 16 points in the half and the Celtics ended the half shooting 56 per cent on field goals. The Spurs shot 53 per cent to stay in the game.
Tim Duncan got the Spurs going early in the third, scoring two quick baskets. Ginobili scored his first basket of the game with eight minutes left in the third quarter, giving the Spurs a 60-59 lead.
Halfway through the third, Richard Jefferson hit a three, putting the Spurs up 65-61, but Allen hit yet another of his catch-and-shoots, bringing the Celtics back within two.
An Allen three tied the game at 70 with three minutes left in the third. Boston took a 77-70 lead on a 10-0 run to end the third quarter, but George Hill hit a shot at the buzzer, cutting the Celtics lead to 77-72.
For the Celtics, Glen Davis had 19 points through three quarters.
The Spurs had open looks during the second half but were unable to deliver any momentum-building shots. Meanwhile, Boston matched its largest lead at 79-72 early in the fourth on a Nate Robinson jumper.
Searching for a basket, Ginobili tipped in a missed shot, cutting the Celtics lead to five, 79-74. Gary Neal hit a floater and was fouled by Jermain O’Neal, his third, giving Neal a three-point play after a successful free throw. The Celtics lead was down to two, with nine minutes left in the game.
The Celtics, however, kept pressure on the Spurs but back-to-back threes by Ginobili cut the Celtics lead to one, 86-85. Four straight points by the Celtics made it 90-85, but the Spurs hung tight, cutting it to one on a Ginobili layup.
The Spurs got the ball back on a loose-ball foul on Jermaine O’Neal. A technical foul gave Ginobili a free throw attempt, which he made, for his 13th point of the quarter.
The Spurs went up, 92-90, on a pair of Duncan free throws, giving the Spurs a 7-0 run but Davis tied it at 92 on a long two. The final quarter was shaping up to go down to the wire, with both teams playing to win.
Tied again at 94 with 3:24 left in the game, Allen went to the line for a pair of free throws and gave the Celtics a two point lead.
Ginobili carried the Spurs in the fourth, scoring 20 of his 24 points in the quarter, and tied the game at 96 with just under three minutes to go.
Allen hit a three with 1:37 left, putting the Celtics up by five, 101-96. The Celtics were on a 7-0 run when the Spurs turned the ball over. Boston capitalized, making it a 9-0 run and a nine point lead with less than a minute to go, but the game was far from over.
A Ginobili trey followed by a layup cut the lead to four, 105-101, with 40 seconds to go.
A Richard Jefferson steal led to a Celtics foul with 30 seconds to go. After making both, the score was 105-103, Celtics.
Allen, an 89 percent free throw shooter, could have sealed the win but missed two free throws with eight seconds left. The Spurs rebounded and took their last time-out. Down 105-103 with 7.4 seconds, Ginobili’s last-second shot was blocked by Pierce and the Celtics hung on in a nail-biter.
For the Celtics, Allen made 12 of 15 field goals and ended the game with 31 points. Rajon Rondo notched a triple double with 12 points, 22 assists, 10 rebounds.
For the Spurs, it was their first two-game losing streak of the season. They now travel to Indiana for a Friday night game.