Game rewind: Duncan bewitches Boston again

Rick Pitino remained convinced for many years that he would have perhaps retired as an NBA coach if the lottery numbers had held true and Tim Duncan would have ended up with the Boston Celtics when he was coaching there.

The Celtics had the best chance of earning the right to pick Duncan when he was the overwhelming No. 1 draft pick in the 1997 draft. But they failed to get him and instead wound up picking up Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups. It sent the Celtics’ hopes spiraling downward and eventually led to Pitino leaving the franchise four years later.

Instead, Duncan ended up in San Antonio to help build one of the NBA’s most consistent powers over  the last 15 seasons.

And since that fateful draft day, the exploits of Duncan have always stung a little more for Celtics fans. As Duncan led the Spurs to four NBA titles while earning nine first-team All-NBA berths, it’s made some understandably wonder how the Celtics would have been different if Duncan ended up playing for them.

Duncan has always been a persistent pest against the Celtics, leading the Spurs to 13 victories in 15 games in Boston during his career, including Wednesday’s 87-86 squeaker. He’s averaged 20.4 points and 11.3 rebounds in his career against Boston.

He had another double-double Wednesday night with 10 points and 16 rebounds and was involved in a key defensive set that turned away Paul Pierce’s game-winning attempt at the buzzer.

“It was make or miss. I just didn’t want him to go by me,” Duncan told the Associated Press. “To be honest with you, he probably got the shot he wanted.”

Duncan switched onto Pierce off a pick-and-roll, but helped cause his step-back jumper at the foul line to clank away at the buzzer.

“Listen, Paul Pierce taking a step-back at the [free throw line], that’s not a bad option,” Boston coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the game. “I just wish we could have done it a bit earlier.”

Instead, Duncan denied the Celtics again.

As he’s done most of his career. 

Here’s a look at how the Spurs claimed their ninth straight victory and pulled within one game of Oklahoma City for the best record in the Western Conference.

The game, simply stated: After a strong offensive performance in the first half, the Spurs slogged through their worst offensive half of the season in the second half. Despite those struggles, some key hustle plays down the stretch enabled them to escape with a gritty victory reminiscent of some of their old title-winning teams.  

Where the game was won: After Brandon Bass’ tip-in gave the Celtics an 83-81 lead, the Spurs’ defense and clutch shooting came through. Kevin Garnett missed a shot that could have given Boston a four-point lead. The Spurs then got a key offensive rebound from Duncan that set up a 3-pointer by Gary Neal with 1:59 left that gave them the lead for good. And after Duncan hit a foul shot, Matt Bonner’s basket after a clutch rebound by Manu Ginobili boosted the lead to 87-83 with 46.5 seconds left. Ray Allen’s 3-pointer pulled the Celtics within one with 39.8 seconds left and Danny Green missed a 3-pointer on San Antonio’s final possession. The Spurs escaped when Pierce’s jumper at the buzzer was no good.

The good: The Spurs took control by scoring 12 consecutive points in the second quarter after a 36-all tie with 8:57 left in the second quarter. The run was highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers by Bonner and a fadeaway jumper by Neal that gave them a 48-36 lead with 6:45 left. After Bradley snapped the string with a jumper, the Spurs rattled off seven more points capped by a layup by Duncan that gave them their biggest lead at 55-38 with 4:37 left.

The bad:  The Celtics closed the first half with a 10-4 run capped by a layup by Bradley that brought them within 59-48 at the break.

The ugly: San Antonio’s third quarter was their most putrid performance of the season. After converting two of their first four shots after halftime, the Spurs finished by the quarter by hitting only two of their last 18 shots and finished at 20 percent. They finished with a season-worst nine points in the quarter, including only five points over the final 9:47 of the quarter.

Player of the game I: The Spurs had no answer for Bradley, who erupted for a game-high 19 points off the Boston bench on 9-for-16 shooting.

Player of the game II: Neal came off the bench to score 13 points, including three 3-pointers, and also provided three rebounds and four assists.

Player of the game III: Rajon Rondo was the vital player for the Celtics, notching 17 points, 11 assists, four steals and three rebounds as he outplayed Tony Parker throughout the game.  

Most unsung: Ginobili was limited to five points in 24:46. But no play was bigger than his offensive rebound of Stephen Jackson’s missed shot with 1:10 left that gave the Spurs another possession. And Ginobili made the most of it with 46.5 seconds left when he assisted on Bonner’s clinching basket.   

Attendance: The Celtics attracted their 28th consecutive sellout of the season as a crowd of 18,624 was at the TD Garden for the game.

Did you notice I: University of Kentucky coach John Calipari was seated courtside for the game, only two nights after winning his first NCAA title in New Orleans. Calipari was greeted warmly by the TD Garden crowd, who remembered him from his days coaching at nearby UMass.  

Did you notice II: Tiago Splitter showed some determination after having a jumper swatted away by Kevin Garnett with 8:37 left in the game. The Spurs’ backup center gathered the ball and then quickly beat Garnett to the hoop for a rebound basket. It’s showing that Splitter is progressing in his post  play as he employed one of the lessons against one of the best defenders in NBA history.  

Stat of the game I: The Spurs’ victory and Oklahoma City’s loss at Miami pulled San Antonio within one game of the Thunder for first place in the Western Conference. The Spurs are even in the loss column and have the tiebreaker over the Thunder after winning twice in their three-game regular-season series.

Stat of the game II: The Spurs were limited to nine points in the third quarter. It’s their lowest scoring quarter this season and tied the franchise low for points in the third quarter most recently notched at Toronto on Feb. 7, 2002.

Stat of the game III: Tim Duncan had 10 points and 16 rebounds for his 19th double-double this season and his seventh in his last 11 games. 

Stat of the game IV: The Spurs’ bench again was a critical component of their victory with a 44-24 edge over the Celtics in bench points. The Spurs’ bench has outscored their opponents, 163-91, in their last three games.

Stat of the game V: The Celtics hit only 46.2 percent from the foul line, converting six of 13 free throws. It was only the second time this season a Spurs opponent shot less than 50 percent from the foul line after Philadelphia hit 45.5 percent on March 25.

Stat of the game VI: The Celtics’ five-game winning streak was snapped, as was their eight-game home winning streak. 

Stat of the game VII: The Spurs were limited to 27.5 percent shooting in the second half.

Stat of the game VIII: Pierce was limited to 15 points, snapping his streak of 20-plus scoring games at seven games.

Stat of the game IX: The Spurs have won 26 of their last 31, 15 of their last 17 road games and 14 of their last 15 against Eastern Conference foes.

Stat of the game X: The Spurs are 9-1 since Stephen Jackson arrived, 8-0 since Boris Diaw arrived and 5-0 since Patty Mills joined them.

Weird stat of the night I: The Spurs committed only eight fouls, coming within one of breaking the franchise record for fewest fouls in a game in team history. It’s the lowest number of fouls since the Spurs set the team record with seven at Houston on April 13, 1984.

Weird stat of the game II: The Spurs set a season low by scoring 28 points in the second half, beating the previous low of 35 points at Miami on Jan. 17. The Spurs’ second-half woes came after they had hung a season-best 65 points on Cleveland in the second half Tuesday night.

Weird stat of the game III: After piling up all 12 field goals in the first  quarter in the paint and producing 40 paint points in the first half, the Spurs notched only eight points in the paint in the second half.

Weird stat of the game IV: The Spurs had an 18-4 edge in second-chance points including 7-2 in the fourth quarter. The Spurs produced a 15-8 rebounding edge in the fourth quarter, including a 6-1 edge on offensive rebounds. 

Weird stat of the game V: It was the Spurs’ first one-point victory since an 89-88 victory over the Los Angeles  Lakers last Feb. 3. That was the game settled on Antonio McDyess’ game-winning basket at the buzzer.

Weird stat of the game VI: In the coaching tenure of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ record in games settled by one point is 32-21.   

Weird stat of the game VII: The Spurs missed nine consecutive 3-point attempts from late in the second quarter until Danny Green hit one with 9:08 left in the game.

Not a good sign: Rookie Kawhi Leonard was shut out in 17:37. It marked the third game he has failed to score this season and first since Feb. 15 at Toronto.

Best plus/minus scores: Bonner was plus-8 and Duncan and Neal were both plus-7.

Worst plus/minus scores: Ginobili was minus-12 and Parker and Splitter were both minus-6.  

Quote of the game: “The third quarter was uglier than bowling shoes,” Spurs analyst Sean Elliott, describing the struggling play of both teams on FOX Sports Southwest.

How the schedule stacks up: The Spurs return home for games Friday against New Orleans and Sunday against Utah before meeting the Jazz in Utah Monday night. The Celtics travel to Chicago Thursday night and Saturday at Indiana before returning home Sunday against Philadelphia.

Injuries: The Spurs had a complete roster. Parker stumbled near the Spurs bench with 2:33 left and was removed for the rest of the game after tangling with Bradley and stumbling to the floor. Boston played without F Jermaine O’Neal (left wrist surgery) and G Mickael Pietrus (head injury)

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