With little prompting, Jim O'Brien offered a harsh, but obvious, assessment of the Celtics in his postgame press conference. After Boston was easily dismissed by San Antonio, 109-92, on national television yesterday afternoon, it made no sense for O'Brien to hide the truth or his own frustrations.
"Our challenge is to find a way to play better basketball than we've been playing over the last couple games," said O'Brien. "We haven't played a really good basketball game since Houston and we've got to find a way to turn this around.
"Over the last two games we too easily allowed the ball to the rim. I guess I would say that I will play only the people from here on out that will make it a point not to let the basketball get to the rim. That's one way to solve it. If I have to overplay people to get the toughness that we need in that phase of the game, then that's what I'll do. If I have to play Mark Blount, as an example, 48 minutes, I'll play him 48 minutes. But we will not be soft on the defensive end."
The Celtics allowed the Spurs to shoot 53 percent from the floor, but the truly disturbing numbers came on the glass and in the paint. Boston was outrebounded, 50-34, and outscored in the paint, 54-34. San Antonio earned easy baskets inside with smart passing, with 18 of its season-high-tying 32 assists leading to either layups, dunks, or short-range jumpers.
"Like I was telling some of the guys, we're up and down," said Paul Pierce (19 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist). "Sometimes players don't know plays and we don't get stuff. We're not understanding the system on defense every single time down court. That's the challenge we're faced with when you have a new ball club."
The Spurs led from start to finish and enjoyed their first double-digit lead (24-13) when Hedo Turkoglu hit center Rasho Nesterovic for a 5-foot hook shot with 4 minutes 31 seconds left in the first quarter. The Celtics would close within 4 points (41-37) midway through the second on a pair of free throws from Ricky Davis but came no closer for the remainder of the contest. They were hurt not only by poor defense, but also by a virtually non-existent offense. Boston shot 42 percent, including 26 percent in the second quarter and 29 percent in the third.
The Celtics went prolonged stretches without a field goal. During the final 7:55 of the second quarter, Boston scored just once from the floor, on a 7-footer from Mike James. Then, after the Celtics closed within 8 points in the third, they failed to sink a field goal over the final 4:20 of the quarter.
After establishing a 52-40 halftime lead, the Spurs took a 71-58 advantage into the fourth and never looked back. The defending champions opened the final period with an 11-4 run, pushing their advantage to the 20-point plateau. San Antonio would lead by as many as 25 points in the fourth.
"I was pleased with our performance because I thought we played for 48 minutes and that's what this league is all about," said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. "We haven't always done that, but hopefully, this crew is beginning to figure that out. We combined 48 minutes of good defense with making some shots; that certainly makes things a little bit easier for us."
The win stopped a three-game losing streak for the Spurs, while the Celtics extended their skid to four games. Boston held Tim Duncan to 15 points (6 of 15) and seven rebounds, but could not contain both Duncan and center Nesterovic (23 points, 13 rebounds). For the Celtics, Pierce continued to struggle, going 6 for 18 from the floor. After the game, however, he was focused on the team's struggles and addressed continued concerns that Boston is "soft," something O'Brien seemed to hint at in his remarks.
"I think [toughness] has to come from each and every individual," said Pierce. "When you say `a soft team,' you're not really just pointing out one or two people. It has to come from everybody. The characteristics of [a soft team are] not really being a strong rebounding team, letting teams score on you in the paint. I think that's where it comes from.
"It's definitely frustrating. But you try to look at the situation and it's really tough when you go out on the court and you don't have all five guys on the same page all the time. We're challenged already as a team that's just coming together this year, a brand-new team, all new guys except for three or four of us. We can't afford to go out there and make the mistakes that we make on a night-in and night-out basis. We're challenged with our chemistry."