If you just looked at the play-by-play description of the final 10 seconds of Tuesday night's Game 5 between the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics at Philips Arena in Atlanta, you'd see something like this:
0:10, ATL 87, BOS 86: Atlanta full timeout
0:10, ATL 87, BOS 86: Avery Bradley enters the game for Ray Allen
0:10, ATL 87, BOS 86: Atlanta 20-second timeout
0:09, ATL 87, BOS 86: Josh Smith bad pass (Rajon Rondo steals)
0:00, ATL 87, BOS 86: End of the 4th Quarter
0:00, ATL 87, BOS 86: End Game
And you would go, "Oh, I guess absolutely nothing happened in the nine seconds between Rondo stealing Smith's pass and the final buzzer, which means the Hawks have staved off elimination and will try to even the series at three games apiece on Thursday night. That seems kind of weird, but I don't intend to question it, since it's right here in front of me in black and white."
But that's where you're wrong, dummy. If you'd seen it, you'd know that multiple things happened in that final 10.9 seconds ... although, now that I think about it, you'd probably be happier not seeing any of it, since it's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the peerless quality of the NBA game. Behold:
OK, well, that was gross. So what actually happened there?
For starters, we've got an Atlanta team with the ball, a one-point lead and just 10.9 seconds left. All Josh Smith has to do is get the ball in to another guy in a white tank top, whom some Celtic will presumably foul, giving the Hawks the chance to extend their lead and make Boston's job (getting a bucket to tie or re-take the lead) much tougher.
Instead, Smith threw a soft bounce pass to Joe Johnson, whom Rondo had been watching since the refs blew the whistle, and the deft defender got his hand into the passing lane to break things up, wrest possession away from Atlanta and give Boston a chance to end their first-round series with a basket. So that's one bad play, and two if you count Hawks coach Larry Drew dialing up an inbounds play that presented only one viable target for the pass — point guard Jeff Teague is on the complete opposite end of the floor, Marvin Williams is blanketed in the paint by Paul Pierce and the presumed safety valve, Al Horford, had to work too long to break clear of Kevin Garnett's long reach — even after having just called a full timeout to discuss the best way to trigger the ball in after Boston had Atlanta's prior attempt well covered.
Then, we have Rondo, taking possession with a chance to tidily settle matters and just over nine seconds left in regulation. Inbounder Smith picks up the C's All-Star point guard deep in the backcourt, where Rondo — rather than just turning on the jets to get up into the offensive end and get something going at the rim — burns a few seconds heading to the middle of the floor, then coming back to his left for a Garnett screen. Given how precious those few ticks are for a team, like Boston, that was out of timeouts, I think you can call the east-west move an unsound one.
Rondo goes left off the Garnett rub, where he's picked up by Horford on the switch. At this point, he's one-on-one with the Hawks' just-back-from-injury center, a matchup you expect Rondo to win ... which is good, because his decision to go left pretty much eliminated Pierce, Avery Bradley and Mickael Pietrus, all of whom are in the right corner (for some reason), from the play barring an obscenely difficult cross-court pass through four Atlanta defenders that would have been unlikely to result in an actual shot at the basket, since there's only three seconds left when Rondo gets one-up with Horford. Rondo cutting out 60 percent of his potential destinations for the ball wasn't great, nor was the Stooges-style pileup that rendered Pierce, Bradley and Pietrus irrelevant in the first place.
With the onus now on him to create something one-on-one against the larger defender, Rondo makes his push to the baseline. But Horford moves his feet and covers, forcing the guard to pull back to his right and try to create space for a possible buzzer-beating jumper ... except that when Rondo yoinks that low left-to-right cross, he loses the handle. By the time he recovers, with 1.3 seconds left, he's facing away from the basket and falling to the sideline, so all he can do is shovel the ball toward Garnett. Smith, who stayed with KG on the switch of the initial pick-and-pop action, returns Rondo's favor, deflecting the pass away and ragging the rest of the time off the clock to put a merciful end to an unseemly stretch of basketball.
Even if you like defense and credit the sharp plays made in its service — Rondo's pick, Smith and Horford moving their feet to stay with Rondo, Smith's deflection — there's still like six bad plays in that 10.9-second stretch. And it's not like that was Atlanta's maiden attempt at trying to fritter the victory away — the Hawks led this game by 12 points with 2:54 remaining in the third quarter, then promptly turned the ball over five times in less than 150 seconds, allowing Boston to rip off a quarter-closing 10-0 run to cut the lead to two heading into the fourth and take the lead within three minutes of the fourth. Heck, just before that 11-second "Benny Hill" routine, Williams left Pierce wide open for a wing 3-pointer that cut Atlanta's lead to one, and immediately before it, Pierce had a chance to take the lead from one of his favorite spots on the floor ... only to miss by five feet. (Of course he did.)
Hawks fans should be glad that their team lives to fight another day, of course, with no shame in the survival. But for the rest of us ... boy, was this an awful way to watch a playoff game end. If there's any consolation to be taken from it, it's that at least the team who was leading before the start of that "Shark Sandwich" sequence wound up on the right side of the score line in the end. We'll have to warm ourselves with that — and the lovely memory of what a healthy Horford can do (19 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, three blocks, three steals in 41 heartening minutes) — as we brace ourselves to watch them do it all over again on Thursday. Courage, friends.
Is the clip above not working for you? Please feel free to check out the finish elsewhere, thanks to CBSSports.com's Ben Golliver. (Though you probably shouldn't.)
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