Near-perfect not enough for Ray Allen

BOSTON -- Gregg Popovich had just watched Ray Allen fillet his San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night to the tune of 31 points, connecting on 13 of 16 shots.

"I think Ray needs to work on his shooting a little,'' Popovich said.

This was Popovich at his dripping, sarcastic best. But the Boston Celtics guard was 100 percent in agreement with the Spurs coach.

"Right now, I want to go to the gym and shoot free throws,'' Allen said after the Celtics held off the Spurs 105-103 at TD Garden. That's because Allen inexplicably bricked a pair of freebies with 8.1 seconds left, giving the Spurs one final possession to tie or win the game.

The Spurs couldn't come through -- and Allen was off the hook. He had bricked a pair of free throws at a similar critical juncture in a game in Cleveland in November 2007. The Celtics lost that one. You remember these things because they happen about as often as North Korea changes its leader.

On a night when Allen missed only three from the field in nearly 39 minutes, matching his season high of 13 baskets, he was still kicking himself afterward for the two he missed from the line. He'd missed only 10 all season before Wednesday night and only once, on Nov. 21 in Toronto, had he missed two free throws in a game.

"I will personally shoot 100 free throws [today],'' Allen said.

You believe him. The Celtics don't practice Thursday but you can bet the house and children that Allen will be out at the workout facility, shooting freebies.

It was the 13 baskets that Allen made that helped the Celtics eke out a win in the much-anticipated battle of NBA heavyweights. Before the game, Popovich was talking about his team's lamentable defensive effort the night before in New York and noted that his players were slow coming off screens. He compared it to being late on Allen coming off a screen. (Or, as Johnny Most might have said, "too late.")

Popovich turned out to be prophetic. He had to call two timeouts before the game was four minutes old, as Allen came out firing, scoring 10 points in the first 8:09. He came off screens for eight of those 10 points, Rajon Rondo setting him up each time.

"If it was practice and you did pin-downs and you came off of that -- I don't know if anyone in the league could make 13 out of 16. He does it in a game," Popovich said.

The Spurs switched their defense to try to contain Allen and, for a time, it worked. But Allen was a perfect 6-for-6 from the field in the second half and had two big hoops (a 3-pointer and a driving layup off his own steal) in the final 97 seconds to help the Celtics pull away.

"Ray does that better than anyone in basketball,'' Popovich said, referring to Allen's ability to get open and make big shots. "He's difficult to guard that way. He knows all the tricks in the book. He understands spatial relationships. He knows how to freeze his defender."

The Celtics are 11-0 when Allen scores 20 or more points. This was his second submission of more than 30; he had 35, still the high for anyone on the team this season, in the Nov. 11 victory in Miami.

He wasn't the only one who was hot. The Celtics shot 61.3 percent from the field, the second time this season they've shot better than 60 percent. Paul Pierce was 7-of-10. Rajon Rondo was 6-of-10. But it was old, reliable No. 20 who seemed to drive the stake into the heart of the Spurs.

There was no bigger hoop than the 3-pointer he made with 1:37 left and the Celtics nursing a two-point lead. Pierce had the ball at the top of the key and saw that Manu Ginobili and George Hill were trapped inside. One was supposed to be on Allen. Pierce quickly passed it to Allen, who was in front of the Spurs' bench. Ginobili popped out but, as Allen recalled, "He had that 'Oh [expletive]' look.'''

And for good reason. The ball hit nothing but net. It was Pierce's only assist of the night. Popovich said his team "imploded" on defense on that play.

"I am always surprised when I'm open, especially for a 3,'' Allen said. "I always feel that if I am in better shape than the guy that's guarding me, then their team is going to need help. Someone is going to be open if we move the ball."

Allen's second hoop of the quarter, a layup off his steal of Hill, gave Boston a 105-96 lead with 56.8 seconds left.

Ballgame? Not if you allow the Spurs to score seven unanswered points in 17.5 seconds. Then came the deliberate foul on Allen with the aforementioned 8.1 seconds remaining and the Celtics leading by two.

The first one rolled off the rim. Allen said he did nothing different between the two shots, but the second one was long. There was a stunned silence in the TD Garden with fans having quizzical looks.

Did we just see that?

Allen admitted that missing the first probably led to him missing the second but, as he added, "Those are the things that perplex me. I guess you can chalk it up to the percentages."

He said he told his teammates he owed them. He vowed to make his next 16 in a row. No one will be surprised if he lives up to his end of the deal.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.