So the Celtics scored on their final 5 offensive possessions of game tonight against a top-5 defense. Outscored Grizz 12-6 in final 2:05.— Brian Robb (@CelticsHub) March 12, 2015
Those were impressive numbers for a Celtics team trying to grind out a playoff berth against the Memphis Grizzlies last night, the grit and grind team of the league. Boston had gone toe-to-toe with the Western Conference's second best team, but were still down two with 52.2 seconds left on the clock. For over 47 minutes, they had swapped leads 13 times over 150 possessions, but no play was bigger than Marcus Smart's three-point play that gave the Celtics the lead for good with under a minute to play in the game. How did that happen?
Let's the stage. The past is prologue, especially in sports and particularly in basketball where less random happens than say hockey or soccer. NBA basketball can be even more predictable with teams relying on their stars to make plays especially in tight spots. However, crunch time go-to player of late Isaiah Thomas was out with the bruised back and past hero Evan Turner was an unremarkable 1 for 6. Who could Brad Stevens turn to?
Well, Kelly Olynyk had started the second half for Tyler Zeller in order to draw Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol away from the rim and for most of the third and fourth quarters, it was working. KO scored 12 points in just under 12 minutes, including two top-of-the-arc threes, a long 2 with a foot on the line, and two jumpers where the former point guard put the ball on the floor and pulled up in the key. It's conceivable that Stevens would have drawn up the winning play for him.
Olynyk also had two assists in the final two quarters. One was from one of Boston's pet plays, a simple dribble hand off to Avery Bradley. Bradley lead the team in scoring with 17 points and was on fire in the second half, hitting 5 of 7 shots. That could have easily been the high percentage ATO play.
Olynyk's other assist came on Smart's potential and-1 earlier in the fourth quarter that briefly gave Boston the lead at 83-82. Olynyk could again serve as the team's trigger man after the sideline inbound pass and find guys from the top of the key. He had been hitting his outside shot and could find cutters with Gasol above the break.
Consider that on all three inbound passes from the sideline in the third quarter, Olynyk was the first man to touch the ball off a simple small-to-big pick. Outside of drawing your center out of the paint, it's a harmless play to get the ball into action, right?
Sure, that's probably what Dave Joerger and Memphis thought was coming when Turner, Bradley, Smart, Crowder, and Olynyk checked in for that play. Olynyk would get the ball just like he had on every inbounds play that half and they'd defend from there. Conventional wisdom on the Celtics sideline might have been to use as much of the shot clock as possible, give another possession to the Grizzlies, but ultimately have enough time for a good shot to finish the game.
That looked like what was going to happen. Olynyk faked the brush screen on Crowder and based on the speed of Crowder's cut, Gasol doesn't even take a step towards the paint to protect against the lob. He stuck with Olynyk who he expected to get the ball beyond the arc and start a half court set. His full attention was on KO and he was completely oblivious to what's happening behind him.
But KO was a decoy.
Smart makes a hard cut toward the ball like he's going to receive the inbound pass from Evan Turner away from the basket. Avery Bradley stands motionless, almost clueless. He's not looking to make a play for the ball and more importantly, setting himself to screen Smart's defender, Courtney Lee.
As Smart passes Bradley, he makes a quick cut left and leaves the picked off Lee behind him. That gives Turner enough room to make the pinpoint lob pass to the rim and as Marc D'Amico at Celtics.com puts it, "this is where Smart's elite instincts kick in." He makes sure to make the catch, brace for contact, and hit the layup. That ties the game and Smart hits the free throw to put Boston up by 1.
After the big win, Bradley gave credit to his head coach and said, "It starts with Brad -- he's calling the right plays, and he's slowing us down and he's giving us that confidence to be able to go out there and make plays. To me, the biggest play of the game was ET's pass. [Stevens] told Evan, ‘Have confidence. If the pass is open throw it.' And that's what Evan did, and that was a big play for us." Here's the statistical takeaway from Forsberg's piece:
Consider this: Since Jan. 22, the night Turner hit a late 3-pointer to beat the Portland Trail Blazers and seemingly lit the fuse on the Celtics' recent turnaround, Boston is averaging 0.947 points per play in after-timeout situations, according to Synergy Sports play-type data. If maintained, that number would rank the team third in the league behind only the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers (led by Boston's former Czar of the Whiteboard, Doc Rivers).
For the season, the Celtics rank seventh overall in ATO efficiency at 0.901 points per play, according to Synergy data. The six teams in front of Boston all currently project as playoff squads, which speaks to the value of crisp execution coming out of timeouts (especially when you consider that 16.1 percent of the Celtics' total plays this season have come in those situations).
And as many of noted, the playcalling has been a sign of Stevens' brilliance, but that genius isn't realized unless players are buying in and executing and the Celtics have been. Those numbers are impressive, but what makes it more impressive is that he's done it despite a record roster turnover that featured almost a dozen trades with nearly two dozen players over half a dozen months. That's long term players meshing with new faces for a coach instilling confidence in all of them.