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Film Study: Exploring the Celtics’ inventive late game clock inbound strategy

Boston has played with a fun new approach to scoring with just a few seconds left in a quarter.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With just 3.2 seconds remaining in the third quarter of the Boston Celtics’ matchup against the Indiana Pacers, Al Horford prepared to inbound the basketball from the Boston half of the court. Most of his teammates loafed around casually nearby, while Marcus Smart positioned himself by the opposing basket.

The referee handed Horford the ball, Smart aggressively sealed his defender near the top of the key, and the pair connected on a Hail Mary-esque pass. Smart won the battle for the ball, and drained a turnaround jump shot. It was a beautifully executed bit of inbound ingenuity.

The Celtics haven’t found themselves in the right context to attempt this play all that often. In fact, Boston has implemented it just three times, and the only occasion in which they’ve ever succeeded is the example above (per my own review of the NBA’s play-by-play data). That’s not enough of a sample to draw any conclusions, but a 33.3% success rate is, presumably, quite good compared to the available alternative options.

It’s not a strategy without flaws. Throwing a pass over such a large distance comes with substantial risk. If the inbounder airmails the player posting up, then the opponent gets a free chance to toss the ball in from the Celtics’ half of the court (hasn’t happened yet).

Boston also risks surrendering points if the play goes off with too much time on the clock, and a defending team forces a turnover on their own end. That’s precisely what happened against the Spurs.

Mind you, Boston lost to San Antonio by three points. Their failure to execute this one play had major implications for the outcome of the game. Had they scored here, and the second half played out in identical fashion, the Celtics would have won.

Those are particularly high stakes that are only able to be understood in retrospect, but the point is clear: effectiveness, or lack thereof, in even the smallest of moments, is always important. Brad Stevens clearly understands as much. It’s the reason he keeps experimenting with such an ambitious strategy.

It’s a mindset that was adopted most radically by former General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, Sam Hinkie, the primary architect of “The Process,” a divisive strategy that saw the Sixers sell off competent players and lose intentionally to acquire future assets in the form of draft picks and young talent.

Philadelphia’s tanking philosophy was part of a broader perspective that Hinkie applied to his time running the team, attempting, as best he could, to view the Sixers and the game of basketball itself without concern for traditional conventions.

"Why do we watch basketball games front to back?” Hinkie asked Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard in 2016. “Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?”

Hinkie’s inquiry was meant to point out the value basketball observers place on context, and its influence on the way the game is perceived. If, for example, Marcus Smart airballs his first two three-point attempts, hits two in a row throughout the course of the game, and then misses a potential game-winner, we are more likely to remember his performance negatively.

In actuality, Smart would have made 40.0 percent of his long range shots, a mark that is not only well above his career average, but that is widely considered a threshold for elite ability.

Our evaluation shifts because of the primacy Smart’s misses in the game’s larger narrative. What Hinkie is suggesting is that we need to find a way to distribute equal value to every moment, regardless of it’s position in the sequence of a game.

This is a decidedly unconventional means of thinking, but it’s comprised of some sound logic. If your favorite team (cough Celtics) wins by two points, then there technically isn’t any difference between the game’s final bucket and one made in the middle of the second quarter. The former is contingent upon the latter having happened.

In this sense Hinkie has highlighted a simple truth of the game: every basket is equally important in contributing to a team’s final point total. He’s right, thus, to attempt to value opportunities to score throughout the game equally.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Where Hinkie’s thinking hits a snag (and I’m sure he’s thought of this, but simply did not articulate it in the article in which this topic was discussed) is in the details. There are structures within a game that shift the calculus of what makes a moment valuable. Chief among them, the shot clock and game clock.

The value of an NBA moment shifts with each second that ticks off of the clock, a reality that becomes the further a team finds itself from the hoop. Being good at scoring from your own end of the court, with just seconds left to play is less valuable than being good at doing so with a full play clock to work with in the halfcourt, not only because there is a massively lower expected value for such plays, even when a team excels at them, but also because they occur far less frequently.

Just because each second of an NBA game may not hold the same value, doesn’t mean that they’re not all valuable though. A team that excels at scoring in situations in which the likelihood of doing so is low can establish a slight competitive advantage, and it would appear the Celtics may be on the verge of doing so.

With just seconds remaining on the game clock, pinned inside their own half of the floor, Boston has opted not to settle for the halfcourt heaves most times rely on. Such shots rarely go in, and players even frequently intentionally shoot them a beat too late, as a means of preserving their shooting percentages. The Celtics have turned to their long bombing inbound pass instead. They’ll give it enough looks to see if it’s viable moving forward.

It’s possible that teams will catch on. They could simply drop one more player back to roam for deep balls, and snuff out the strategy entirely. Doing so may free up just enough space for a halfcourt look to become more viable.

There are always consequences for reacting to another team’s strategy, and in this sense Boston has shown a willingness to try to force their opponents’ hands. They deserve credit for that, no matter how seemingly trivial the moment they choose to do so may appear.