The Spurs, or what's left of them, made their annual visit to Boston yesterday. The Celtics, or what's left of them, ended a home losing streak to San Antonio that stretched to Jan. 8, 1997, when Tim Duncan still was enjoying the pleasures of Wake Forest, Tony Parker was a teenager, and Bruce Bowen was league-hopping three times, including a stop in renowned hoop hotbed Besancon, France (he somehow averaged 25.5 points a game there; that is not a misprint.)
And, as always when the Spurs are around, the talk turns to defense, and the outcome hinges on which team can make the stops in a close game. San Antonio always used to be that team when it played the Celtics. Yesterday, even without Kevin Garnett to anchor things, the Celtics were that team.
In the end, the Celtics made the stops in a 98-90 victory. In the end, the Celtics made the hustle plays. In the end, the Celtics got a welcome, if surprising 33-minute stint from Glen Davis that had everyone in black and silver throwing bonbons his way following a 9-point, 8-rebound performance. The Celtics now have a two-game winning streak over a team that, until last St. Patrick's Day, hadn't lost to a Boston team in a decade.
Kind of overnight, the Celtics have become the Spurs. They brought in defensive guru Tom Thibodeau ("He's a master," lauded Bowen). They brought in Garnett ("By osmosis, his energy and effort rubs off. He makes his teammates play hard and they don't want to mess up and have to hear it from him," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said). At times yester day, the Spurs must have felt like they were playing against their old selves. The Celtics allowed them very few uncontested shots and 0 (as in zero) fast-break points in the game.
"Defensively they were solid," Duncan said. "They are always solid."
Now that qualifies as high praise.
The stats say the Celtics have been, from Day 1, the best defensive team in the league. The Spurs were always among the top two or three teams in the two big categories - points allowed and defensive field goal percentage. Yesterday, they walked onto the TD Banknorth Garden floor No. 3 in points allowed (behind Boston and Detroit) but, ahem, 14th in defensive field goal percentage (behind such defensive juggernauts as Indiana and Phoenix). And the Celtics shot 46.5 percent, higher than what the Spurs usually allow.
"I had noticed watching some of their games before and then looking at the stats that they were the top defensive team in the league," the Spurs' Manu Ginobili said. "You gotta give them credit. They play hard. They do it consistently."
Or, as Popovich noted, perhaps somewhat plaintively, "They play harder and more aggressively, more physically, than anyone, than any other team in the league on a consistent basis. That's what makes them special."
The Spurs were without Parker and Brent Barry while the Celtics were without Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. While Garnett is a huge absence, so is Parker, for the Spurs have trouble scoring without him, and that puts even more pressure on their defense. Yet they were within a spin of the ball of tying the game in the final minute when Michael Finley's 3-pointer went in, went down, and still somehow spun out.
But even with that, the Celtics' plays at both ends showed a maturity and a focus that, well, we always saw from the Spurs when San Antonio came through town and left with the obligatory W. There was Big Baby grabbing an offensive rebound in a 2-point game, outmaneuvering Duncan, and going right back up for a layup. "You don't see that too often in a rookie, especially going up against a four-time champion and an MVP," Paul Pierce said of Davis. "But he wanted the challenge."
There was Rajon Rondo, getting a key offensive rebound and registering a double-double that did not include points (12 assists, a career high, and 11 rebounds). Said Duncan of Rondo, "He was great." There was Ray Allen getting his hand on a rebound off a missed free throw and James Posey forcing two big turnovers.
"Too many mistakes that bit us in the butt down the stretch," Duncan lamented. He saluted the work of Davis. "Glen did a great job of using his wide body, cutting down my angles. He played well."
It's hard to get a real read on either team from this game, other than the obvious - they're both pretty good. Perhaps they will be whole again when the Celtics meet the Spurs in San Antonio on - yup - St. Patrick's Day. By that time, every Eastern Conference team will have passed through San Antonio except Boston. By that time, Parker's sore left ankle and Garnett's abdominal strain should be healed.
But regardless of who plays, you probably can look for another defensive grinder, given the decade-old slant of the Spurs and the newfound orientation of the Celtics.
The Spurs didn't win four titles firing away and living on the edge in the Wild, Wild West. And if the Celtics are lucky enough to get that far this year, it won't be for that reason, either. You know what they say: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.