Don't forget about Brad Stevens, the real MVP of the Boston Celtics' thrilling 85-84 victory in the final seconds over the Utah Jazz. Stevens is quickly proving himself to be one of the NBA's finest young coaches, because of his ability to maximize the success of his players. Wednesday's unguardable last-second play call is just the latest example of his potential greatness.
Marcus Smart made an unbelievable pass over the enormous Rudy Gobert, which gave Tyler Zeller a chance to finish the play. Zeller's immaculate body control underneath the rim is one of the more technically impressive things you'll see from a 7-footer this season, but Stevens' play call is equally remarkable.
Preceding the game-winner, Gordon Hayward drained a baseline jumper to put Utah ahead with only 1.7 seconds remaining, which forced the Celtics to use a timeout. The first play Stevens called was defended perfectly by the Jazz, who engulfed the Celtics with size, and they switched on the screen intended to get Jae Crowder the ball.
"[Tyler Zeller] was setting a back screen on my guy. Smart was going to throw it crosscourt to me and I was going to shoot the jumper," Crowder said after the game. "But the way they were switching and staying on top of me, it blew the whole play up."
It was actually a very good call by Stevens, because he fully expected Utah to devour their top two scoring options with size. The speedy and tiny Isaiah Thomas was contained by the tall and lanky rookie Dante Exum, and Rodney Hood's extra five inches on Avery Bradley erased him as a real threat. Stevens understood that Crowder was the most realistic option on the play, but Utah switched and covered him.
The Celtics are fortunate that Marcus Smart had the composure to call a timeout, because most rookies probably would've made the pass anyway; most rookies wouldn't be trusted to even be in this situation, for that matter.
"Jae wasn't open. They switched. I knew there was no way I could get it to him," said Smart. "The paint was cluttered and it would've been a turnover or deflection, and they would've won the game. I wanted to be sure that if we were going to make a play, we were going to win the game for sure, so I called a timeout."
Inside the Huddle
Utah showed their cards by switching on the Zeller back screen for Crowder, which is all Stevens needed to come up with a brilliant counter attack.
"They switched the play before when Marcus couldn't get it inbounded," Stevens said, "so we wanted to try and get that switch again. We just ran a little action to get it."
Stevens is being humble, because the play took more than "a little action" to work as well as it did. Here is the play that Stevens designed in the huddle:
And here is the actual footage of the play:
Utah went with the same advantageous matchups that they did on the prior play, so Stevens somehow had to force a switch to swing the odds back in their favor.
To accomplish this, Thomas clears out of the play entirely by running towards the bench to assure that Exum wouldn't be a factor in the eventual pass over the top to Zeller. Bradley essentially does the same thing to the other side of the court, forcing Hayward to switch.
But Bradley simply wasn't clearing out, because it looked like it was going to be a cross-screen between him and Crowder. Interestingly, Crowder's first few steps were directed towards Hood, but he then made a subtle hard cut to the arc, which caused Hood to sidestep in that direction.
As Hood was focusing on Crowder, Zeller was simultaneously diving towards the basket, which caused the crucial switch between Hood and Derrick Favors. Since Crowder used clever misdirection, Hood was now on Zeller's back, as opposed to being in a preferred position between him and the rim.
Stevens created the best possible play for that situation by assuring that Zeller would get matched up with a smaller defender, and it was executed to perfection. The pre-pass movement was sound, the timing was as good as it can be, and Zeller managed to seal Hood, giving Smart enough room to drop in the pass. It was an unguardable play that not even the NBA's best defense since February could handle.
Smart's Rainbow Pass, Zeller's Dexterous Finish
"It was tough [to get the ball over Gobert]," Smart explained to the media after the game. "They put a tall defender on the ball and I had to pass fake the ball to get him leaning one way. Tyler did a great slipping his man off and I just threw it in."
Gobert's 9-foot-7 standing reach made it a difficult pass for Smart to complete, but he put the necessary touch and trajectory on the ball to make it work -- Tom Brady (and Gerald Wallace) would be proud.
"It was a perfect pass," Zeller added. "It's a tough pass with Gobert on the ball, but he put it right on the money and all I had to do was turn around and get it up."
But it wasn't that easy for Zeller, as he had defenders swarming all around him. Hood was slapping at the ball, Hayward jumped to contest, and Gobert flew out of nowhere and probably would've blocked the shot if Zeller weren't such a nimble 7-footer.
"Gigi walked up to me right before [the final play] and told me, ‘You have time for one shot fake.' And that's exactly what happened," Zeller told the media while smiling ear-to-ear after his first game-winner in the NBA. "I caught the ball and saw Gordon [Hayward] flying in, so I shot-faked, and then I got the ball up."
Zeller was directly beneath the rim, but managed to have time to fake (thanks to the wisdom of Luigi Datome) and eliminate Hayward from the play. He then reached his right hand out to find the blue sky and lay the ball up off the glass. If it weren't for Zeller's pristine body control, soft hands, and composure, either the shot clock would've expired or Gobert would've swatted it away.
"This team has a great ability every night to have somebody different step up. You never know who it's going to be," Zeller said when asked about being the man at the final buzzer. "It's incredible. And it's a fun way to play. It's a way that everybody enjoys and gets into."
Entering Wednesday's game, Brad Stevens had utilized 22 different players this year and 40 different players have been on the roster at one time or another, which is obviously an inordinate amount of bodies. Despite the continuous change, Stevens has his young roster playing with heart, focus, and determination.
"The other night was embarrassing to ourselves, to this organization, and to the game of basketball," Marcus Smart said on Tuesday's 110-70 loss to Cleveland, while displaying the qualities of a true leader. "We understood that. So we just tried to come out here and make sure that, not only to the coaches, but to ourselves that that's not the team we were and it was just a fluke game."
The last-second play call by Brad Stevens and the execution of every player truly epitomizes the evolution of the 2014-15 Boston Celtics, as they are now in hot pursuit of a spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.