BOSTON - Big men David Robinson and Tim Duncan got most of the attention from the smaller Boston Celtics. Point guard Avery Johnson made some of San Antonio's biggest plays.
Johnson scored eight of his season-high 22 points in the fourth quarter and came up with a crucial steal and layup with 2:13 left as the Spurs pulled away for a 97-88 win Tuesday night.
It was their 14th victory in 16 games.
The Celtics matched their longest losing streak of the season at five and, for the fourth consecutive game, they never led. But they did come back from a 35-15 deficit early in the second quarter to tie the game 87-87 with 3:29 remaining.
"The games we don't play well in, we pick up our defense," said Johnson, who added 11 assists. "This is one of those teams that's just hard to play. They can score in spurts."
The Celtics missed 15 of their first 16 shots and were held to just 31 percent shooting.
And they couldn't stop Robinson, who had 36 points and 11 rebounds, although Duncan had a subpar game with 10 points and 10 rebounds. In their last game against Boston, a 101-86 win Dec. 26, they combined for 57 points and 28 rebounds.
"We were so concerned with the inside, we forgot about the outside, and Avery Johnson burned us," said Boston's Antoine Walker, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds.
"Our confidence is a little shaken offensively and losing does that," Celtics coach Rick Pitino said. "For a young basketball team to see that many things go wrong and keep fighting, I'm very proud."
The Celtics were led by rookie Chauncey Billups' season-high 26 points. Defensively, they forced Robinson into six turnovers and Duncan into five.
"This was one of the few, if only, poor nights for Duncan," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "The Celtics were very aggressive. They did a good job of trying to make the big guys turn it over."
Johnson's had only two turnovers and hit an 18-foot jumper that made the score 87-78 with 5:31 left.
"It was a dagger in our heart," Pitino said, ``but we had the guy shooting we wanted to shoot."
The Celtics overcame a 49-38 halftime deficit and tied the game at 87 on baskets by Walker, Dana Barros and Travis Knight and two free throws by Walker.
But Robinson gave the Spurs the lead for good, 89-87, with two free throws, and the Celtics struggled, scoring only one more point on Ron Mercer's free throw that made it 89-88 with 3:07 left.
A dunk by Robinson off Duncan's pass and Johnson's steal and layup made it 93-88. Chuck Person finished the scoring with a 3-pointer and a free throw. With 24 seconds left, Robinson blocked Boston's last shot.
"We really lost our concentration and made a few turnovers" that let Boston catch up, Robinson said. The key was "maintaining our composure in the last five minutes, making the big plays."
Robinson made as many baskets in the first half, 10, as the entire Celtics team. But he took only 13 shots; Boston tried 43.
The Celtics made only five of thir first 31 shots, then hit their next five before finishing the half by missing their last seven. But in the third quarter, the Celtics went 11-for-23 from the field, cutting the 11-point halftime deficit to 75-66.
Notes: The victory was the Spurs' ninth in their last 10 games against the Celtics. ... In their previous two games, the Celtics took just 12 free throws to 85 for their opponents. But on Tuesday, Boston held a 35-26 advantage in free throws attempted. ... San Antonio improved its record to 24-12. After 36 games last season, it was 10-26. ... Spurs guard Vinny Del Negro, sidelined the previous 13 games with an elbow injury, was activated off the injured list but didn't play. ... The Celtics made their first 18 free throws before Billups missed with 1:33 left in the third quarter. ... The Spurs didn't get an offensive rebound until Robinson grabbed his own missed shot with 6:06 left in the game.