In his second year as Celtics head coach, Brad Stevens has shown he’s not afraid of deploying strategies, especially at the end of games. In Saturday’s crucial 117-116 win over the Toronto Raptors, his late-game choices paid off yet again.
The sequence that led to Marcus Smart’s game-wining buzzer-beater began with just four seconds remaining on the clock, and the Celtics trailing by one point. Coming out of a timeout, Smart inbounded the ball to Jared Sullinger at the top of the key. After Sullinger started driving to the hoop, Stevens opted to call another timeout almost immediately.
"We knew we had a timeout when we drew up the first play," Stevens explained. "I didn’t really want to inbound it if our first option wasn’t open, and it wasn’t open. We were trying to go to Evan [Turner] and they smothered it. They actually switched, and it made it a worse matchup for us. I knew right when I saw them switch that I was going to call timeout, but then Marcus threw it in, so I got it as quickly as I could; it probably wasn’t quick enough."
Rather than hope his team could salvage a broken play, Stevens called another timeout to set up another inbounds play. Even with his team trailing in a one-possession game with just a few precious seconds on the clock remaining, he knew the Celtics could get something better than a Sullinger isolation drive.
With 2.6 seconds remaining, he huddled up the Celtics once more, and drew up a play for the team’s offensive sparkplug: Isaiah Thomas. The speedy guard lined up in the backcourt and streaked to the hoop.
"[Isaiah had a] full head of steam,” Stevens told reporters in Toronto. “It’s 2.6 left, just flying. We had the ball at the end of regulation with like seven seconds left, that was a little bit too much [time]. I’ve never seen him do that before. That was a play that we put in for other guys that aren’t here. We’ve never run it since this new group has been together. So we just went right off the board and did it. It worked out."
Smart was all alone on the weak side of the paint after Thomas drove to the hoop, waiting for the ball after Stevens instructed his players to crash the offensive glass after the drive. As Raptors players rotated, Smart took advantage.
“Coach drew up a great play,” Thomas said. “He wanted me to catch the ball on the run and just try to make a play and attack the hoop. I saw the opening, I thought I got fouled and at the last second, I saw Marcus right there…He made a hell of a shot.”
The official scorer did not credit Thomas with an assist on the play, only a missed shot. However, the point guard insisted that his awkward pass/shot to his teammate was intentional.
“He makes winning plays,” Thomas told reporters in Toronto. “You want guys like that on your team that makes winning plays no matter if it’s the first quarter or overtime. He made a big play.”
The victory puts the Celtics back in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with just five games remaining in the regular season. Boston only trails Brooklyn by a half-game for the No. 7 seed and are a half-game up over the Miami Heat for the No. 8 spot.