BOSTON - After falling behind by 17 in the second quarter, the Boston Celtics made a heroic comeback to take a 83-81 lead with roughly two minutes to play and trailed by one with 7.9 seconds to play, but Paul Pierce couldn't hit the potential game-winning jumper and the San Antonio Spurs captured a 87-86 victory on Wednesday at TD Garden.
"I was trying to make the shot," Pierce said, who was visibly upset after his jumper missed the mark. "I got the switch on the big man, got to a good place, just missed the shot."
Avery Bradley, who was sent to the bench with the return of Ray Allen, provided quality minutes and had 19 points to lead Boston (30-23). Rajon Rondo had 17 points and 11 assists, Pierce finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds and Kevin Garnett totaled 16 points and seven boards. Boston shot 46 percent and was out-rebounded 53-39.
Tim Duncan didn't do much in the scoring department, finishing with 10 points, but had a game-high 16 rebounds to lead San Antonio. Danny Green led the team with 14 points, Gary Neal had 13 points and both Tony Parker and Matt Bonner each had 10 points. The Spurs shot 41.9 percent in the win and coughed the ball up 17 times.
"We won by a point, so we didn't 'gut' anything any better than they did," said Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, whose team improved to 38-14. "We just happened to win by a point. The winning team doesn't do everything great and the losing team didn't 'gut' up. It was a physical game. Everybody had their runs. We were fortunate at the end."
After a quick layup from Green to open the game, the Celtics went on a 6-0 run and pulled ahead 16-11 after layups from Rondo and Pierce with 7:07 to play in the opening frame. At that point, Boston was shooting 73 percent from the field (8-for-11) while San Antonio was shooting 45 percent. The lead wouldn't last that long, though, as San Antonio used an 8-0 run to snatch a 25-18 run towards the end of the period and Boston would trail 27-20 through one.
Bradley, who had started in place of Allen during his absence, entered the game late in the first but gave the green a big spark in the second, reaching nine points by the 8:50 mark of the quarter and helping the Celtics tie the game at 36. San Antonio would go on a 17-2 run to go ahead 53-38 at 5:14 and the Spurs closed out the half with a 59-48 advantage.
Allen finally broke onto the scoreboard in the second half, scoring the first bucket of the third period, but that basket couldn't get him going and the Spurs built their lead back up to 13 points, 63-50, through the midway point of the quarter. Pierce started to find his flow as the quarter wound down, but picked up an offensive foul - his fourth - and was sent to the bench. Pierce's absence hurt, but the Celtics were still able to make it a four-point game, 68-64, after three quarters.
Bradley opened the fourth with a layup to bring Boston within two, but the Spurs went to work on offense and pulled ahead by seven, 77-70, with 8:20 to play. About two minutes later, the Celtics had nearly erased the deficit, as a Garnett layup in front of the rim made it a 77-76 game at the 6:38 mark.
An acrobatic shot from Manu Ginobili put the Spurs back up three, 79-76, but Pierce answered with a big straightaway three to tie the game and Bradley's layup from Pierce gave Boston an 81-79 edge to cap off an 11-2 run that put the Celts in the driver's seat.
"It was big," Bradley said about the comeback. "I think it started on the defensive end. Like I always say we are a defensive team first before anything. Doc puts a big emphasis on how we play defense and I feel like we didn't cover the pick and roll very well in the first half, but throughout the game we started to get better at it."
Following a timeout, Neal drained a critical corner three to put San Antonio up by one once more, 84-83, with nearly two minutes left and Duncan hit one of two free throws to make it a two-point game. San Antonio had a chance to put some distance between themselves and Boston with over one minute left, but missed a handful of shots on the possession. Still, the board-loving Spurs got the rebound each time and ultimately found a wide-open Bonner, who hit a jumper to make it an 87-83 lead with 46.5 ticks remaining.
But the Celtics weren't done yet, as Allen (who still had two points) buried a clutch three with 39.8 second left. Green missed a corner jumper on the next possession, and Boston got the board and advanced the ball before calling timeout with 7.9 ticks left.
Allen inbounded the ball to Pierce, who took the ball to the far side perimeter and penetrated up the middle before missing a leaning jumper, giving San Antonio its ninth straight victory.
"It was a great game, great game," Duncan said. "We knew coming in here they're a playoff caliber team and they're always a tough challenge and it was a good game for us, a good challenge for us."
Boston won't have much time at all to digest the loss, as it face the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls in a difficult road game at the United Center on Thursday evening.