SAN ANTONIO -- When the Boston Celtics huddled for breakfast on Friday morning at their hotel on San Antonio's Riverwalk, the topic du jour was Manu Ginobili, a player who was drafted by the Spurs just a few months after Boston rookie Jayson Tatum celebrated his first birthday.
Boston players marveled at not only what Ginobili has accomplished during a distinguished NBA career but how he continues to be an impact player at age 40. Heck, Ginobili is just nine months younger than Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
It was 19-year-old Tatum who found himself isolated on Ginobili in the final seconds of a tied game. A LaMarcus Aldridge screen forced Boston to switch and despite a strong contest from Celtics veteran Al Horford, Ginobili hit a high-arcing 3-pointer with five seconds remaining that lifted the Spurs to a 105-102 triumph at the AT&T Center.
"When we were at breakfast, we were saying he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer," 21-year-old Jaylen Brown said. "And he displayed that tonight. When his team needed two big shots, one [at the end of the first half] and one in the fourth, he knocked them down with confidence like he's done it before. And he has.
"He's been playing [professional] basketball probably as long as I've been alive."
These young Celtics -- the third-youngest team in the NBA when weighted by playing time -- own the best record in basketball, and yet Ginobili and the Spurs offered a firm reminder of the value of experience and continuity.
Even as they await the return of Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs displayed their familiar brand of basketball while rallying from an early 12-point deficit on a night it seemed Kyrie Irving might make a run at his career-best 57-point outing he had in this same building in 2015.
Irving scored 17 of his game-high 36 points in the first quarter, but missed a corner 3-pointer in the closing seconds that could have forced overtime. Offered Irving: "Thought it was cash money. Thought it was going to hit the bottom of the net. ... We're gonna replay it for like about 33 more minutes then I'll be over it."
Stevens won't be able to move on quite as quickly and, while watching the film back, he'll cringe a bit at both the offensive rebound that Ginobili got to set up his game-winner, and also a late first-half sequence that culminated with Boston committing an unnecessary turnover and Ginobili making it hurt with a falling-down 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer.
"I mean, the two plays Manu made at the end of the half and the end of the game were vintage Manu," Stevens said. "I said before the game he's one of the best players at the end of quarters I've ever seen, and now I wish I wouldn't have said it."
Stevens admitted the Celtics did about all they could on Ginobili's final shot.
"We did a great job of guarding him," Stevens said. "Al went out and challenged high. Jayson tried to push him over the screen and kept him in his hand, and then Al challenged that. That's hat tip to Ginobili. That's all that is."
Prior to Friday, Ginobili had attempted six 3-pointers with less than 10 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter or overtime with a chance to give his team the lead, and missed all six shots. Ginobili did make one such shot in the playoffs, on May 6, 2013, in the second overtime against the Golden State Warriors, when he nailed a 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds remaining to turn a one-point deficit into a Spurs win, according to the Elias Sports Bureau research.
Said Ginobili: "I saw Tatum going with [Aldridge]. I just saw the replay and Horford contested great. I just gave him a little more air, shot it higher and it just went in. I think I got even a little lucky because it's not my usual shot, I had to shoot it higher."
The Spurs took Boston out of its normal ways. The Celtics generated a season-low 14 assists, only four of which belonged to ball-handling guards. Add 14 turnovers to that, and you get what is tied for the second-worst assist-turnover ratio of the season for Boston. Aldridge (27 points on 11-of-20 shooting) was spectacular, offensively, and typical star-quieter Horford struggled to slow Aldridge down.
The game had a playoff-like feel with a national TV audience. And even though both teams were missing stars (Leonard's return appears imminent while the Celtics have thrived despite losing Gordon Hayward just minutes into its season opener), it was clear both teams very much wanted to win this game. Stevens went back to his starters early in the fourth quarter and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich picked up an early tech barking at the officials as the Celtics dominated early in the first frame.
For as much success as the Celtics have had this season, including an early season win over the Ginobili/Leonard-less Spurs in Boston, this was a reminder of why Boston's new-look roster -- one replete with seven rookies -- still needs time to develop much-needed chemistry and cohesion.
"We do understand that, in order to play some of the great teams in this league you have to have it consistent for 48 minutes," Irving said. "Patience, resilience, just being locked into what our game plan is and executing it. When you are going against the Spurs, they'll beat you at some things -- coming off screens, they know when they're in the bonus, or catch somebody sneaking back door, something like that. They draw you in, and Pop's an incredible mind and coach, so he sees that stuff. ... You gotta be able to withstand it and we just fell short tonight."
Echoed Brown: "It's great playing really good teams. We only get to play the Spurs two times a year. I think they're really well-coached. Gregg Popovich, that's a testament to him. I think he's a really great coach. And how he leads his team out and expects them to play the game the right way. Not only that, but also take away what we want to do best. I give a lot of credit to the Spurs tonight. I think we definitely have to get better. We're a young team. And we definitely could have won this game, but their veteran leadership and tough shot-making pulled it out for them at the end."