After having trailed by as many as 14 points in the third quarter (thanks in large part to cold shooting induced by the Indiana Pacers' best-in-the-league D) and by nine with 4 1/2 minutes left, the Boston Celtics found themselves in a position they've been countless times before — knotted up, this time at 81, with 23.2 seconds left, the ball and a chance to come away with an improbable win.
We all know what's coming here, right? Paul Pierce gets the ball, hunches over, whiles away a few ticks, then slow-slides his way toward the elbow, hits an on-edge defender with a series of barely perceptible yet all-too-threatening feints, then steps back, lofts a jumper and heads back up the court smiling. We've seen this movie before.
That's what I expected, anyway. And it sure seems like it's what the Pacers expected, too ... so Boston hit 'em where they ain't.
Celtics guard Avery Bradley whittles down the clock until about the nine-second mark, at which point Jeff Green flashes high above the 3-point arc to receive a pass and trigger the action. Green enters the ball to Kevin Garnett, guarded by Indiana center Roy Hibbert at the left elbow. At this point, Pierce — guarded very tightly by Pacers All-Star Paul George — is camped out in the left corner. Green cuts left around Garnett, who fakes a handoff, then turns to face the rim. David West, who was guarding Green on the play, decides to face Garnett and take a swipe at the ball as he passes through KG's fake-handoff-screen, completely taking his eyes off his man. That's all "The Truth" needed.
Pierce — who had been begun making his way toward the elbow, representing that he was coming for the real elbow handoff after KG's fake to Green — just squares up and plants himself, setting a killer back screen to pick off a late-in-recovering West while still occupying the attention of George, whose primary responsibility is denying Pierce the opportunity to beat the Pacers on this play. With Bradley and Jason Terry parked along the arc in the right corner to space the floor, there's absolutely nobody below the foul line in the middle or on the left-hand side of the floor to impede Green's progress as he cuts to the basket.
Garnett sees him open and fires a high fastball of a pass with three seconds left — and credit to Green for catching it, because that could very easily have hit off a lot of dudes' hands — that results in a layup with 0.5 seconds left that capped an 11-0 Boston run over the final 4:35 and gave the Celtics a huge 83-81 win.
It was one of just two Garnett assists on the night — the other, as John Karalis of Red's Army noted — came on a dish to Bradley to tie the game at 81 with 1:21 left. (So, y'know, good timing on those passes, KG.) Green finished with 11 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 34 minutes in the win.
As soon as the play transpired, many watching — myself included — instantly ascribed the brilliant counter to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, long lauded for his creativity in drawing up plays out of timeouts and in late-game situations. As it turns out, though, it was another Celtics coach who won the day for the guys in green, according to ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg:
[...] Rivers studied the green play sheet in front of him with his coaches huddled around, then made his selection. But this is a democracy, so he put his choice up for discussion. One by one his assistants offered input. First Kevin Eastman, then Mike Longabardi. Finally, soft-spoken offensive coordinator Armond Hill announced he wanted a rare audible. [...]
"I had drawn up another play and Armond Hill walked over and — he rarely does it — he said, ‘Hey, listen, the play you drew up from the first half worked, let’s run it again,’" explained Rivers. "And so I switched to the play he wanted me to run. And it was great, it worked out perfectly."
And it's true — as Jared Dubin identified at HoopChalk, Boston had run that same action, with Green entering to Garnett at the elbow and then cutting as a Celtics wing (in this case, Terry) set a back-screen to free him up, on the team's first possession of the second quarter, with Indiana leading 27-19. On that play, the long arms of Pacers backup center Ian Mahinmi broke up Garnett's pass before it could find its intended target, but the Celtics got Indy to defend it the way they wanted; as Hill noticed, the play itself worked, even if Boston didn't cash in on the initial action. (Terry would follow by hitting a midrange jumper after running a side pick-and-roll with Garnett following the deflection.)
So Hill spoke up, Rivers called it up, the Celtics dialed it up and the Pacers, again, couldn't D it up.
"Great when you win on execution," Rivers said after the game, according to Forsberg.
And anything but great for Indiana, a team that prides itself on being able to snuff out opposing offenses' options at all times, but especially late — they've allowed opponents to score a miniscule 87 points per 100 possessions in games where the score's been within five points in the final five minutes, according to NBA.com's "clutch" statistics; while the sample size is similarly miniscule (just 91 minutes), that's 7 1/2 points-per-100 better than their already league-leading mark, which is nuts.
On Wednesday, though, the numbers broke the other way; Indy got got by a clever bit of design reintroduced at the perfect time, West lost his man at the worst possible moment and his teammates failed to communicate to cover for him. The result was the Pacers dropping a half-game behind the New York Knicks into third place in the East, while the surging Celtics got their fourth straight win to move within a half-game of the Chicago Bulls for the sixth spot in the conference.
If the clip above isn't rocking for you, please feel free to check out the game-winner elsewhere, thanks to our friends at the NBA.
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