CLEVELAND – The most dangerous place to put a junkyard dog is against the wall. They fight back with an unstoppable tenacity and fervor.
It’s that fight that Marcus Smart identified so closely with. It’s that drive with which Avery Bradley silently slays.
“A lot of people doubting us out there. Thought we were finished,” Al Horford told CSNNE’s Abby Chin after the 111-108 Celtics’ Game 3 win over the Boston Celtics. “Heart. We got heart. We got beat bad, but it’s all about how you rebound and we bounced back tonight.”
The Celtics grinded and chewed their way back from a 21-point deficit to pull the biggest upset against the spread in conference finals history, per ESPN. But while all of that grit can get you to the end, you still have to close it out.
It’s the reason Brad Stevens saved three timeouts for the final minute of regulation. He is the ATO savant after all, and he proved it on the biggest stage of his career with surgical precision.
“I said that before the series even started about Brad Stevens’ ATOs. If you go back and look at my transcript, I said he’s very good out of ATOs,” LeBron James told CelticsBlog in his post-game press conference when asked about the Celtics scoring on three straight ATOs to close out the game.
“He has so many different wrinkles, misdirection. Thinking the ball is going this way, he has a misdirection going the other way. You’ve got to kind of keep your head on a swivel.”
James learned the hard way about those misdirections in the closing minute, when Avery Bradley drove the lane with 34 seconds left.
Marcus Smart inbounded the ball to Avery Bradley, who cut to the top of the key off an Al Horford pindown. The first key to this play’s success was faking the high post-up for Horford, which put the focus of Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love on the weak side up on Horford. Smart than ran out for a perfect cross-screen, sending Bradley flying at the rim. Smart’s man JR Smith missed everything, both failing to call out the screen for Bradley’s man Kyrie Irving and switching on the screen to cover Bradley’s drive.
Then the rest of the Cavs’ defense saw Bradley flying to the rim and panicked, with every one of the Cavs’ defenders closing in on the paint. This meant all Avery needed to do was find a passing lane and the shot would be wide open. He got into the paint and found a lane for a wrap-around to Jonas Jerebko, which was one of his best passes of the season in the middle of the trees.
“I knew LeBron was going to help. I knew I was going to suck the defense in, and it was my job to act like I was going to lay the ball up, and kick it out to Jonas,” Bradley told CelticsBlog in his post-game press conference. “I told Jonas to make sure he was ready. I wish he shot a three. But I'm just happy for Jonas. He was prepared and ready to shoot the ball, and he made some really big plays for our team tonight. He made the most of his opportunity.”
It was the capstone on an incredible night for Jerebko, who Stevens had foreshadowed would play a big role in this game.
“He was just happy that Sweden won the world hockey championship. He thought he was on the squad,” Kelly Olynyk said on why Jerebko had such a big night.
The shot was crucial for Jerebko, who had just felt the wrath of Stevens after a defensive mistake that allowed JR Smith a wide-open three on the previous play. When Jae Crowder went to double LeBron on the block, Jerebko should have stayed high to cover the shooter. It was one of his few defensive lapses in the final 16 minutes, but he always made up for it.
“He’s a spacer, being able to kick out and knock down those shots,” Stevens told CelticsBlog in his post-game press conference. “But more important than that was the energy on defense. He blocked a shot, got a couple of rebounds, kept balls alive. We just needed a little jolt.”
His spark was enough to get the Celtics this lead after trailing by 21 when he checked into the game in the middle of the third quarter.
But when Kyrie Irving took advantage of an open lane to hit a brilliant layup, the Celtics found themselves on the right end of the two-for-one they set up by executing quickly on the Jerebko jumper. It handed them a chance to close out the game with an easy two. But Stevens wanted to go to an old familiar play with a unique wrinkle.
The results were glorious.
WHAT AN UPSET!!!!— Titanic Hoops (@TitanicHoops) May 22, 2017
AVERY BRADLEY GETS THE SHOOTER'S TOUCH TO BEAT THE CAVS!!! WHAT A COMEBACK!!!!
IT'S EVEN BETTER WITH TITANIC MUSIC!
“Same spot, same man. There go that man again,” Smart said. “Avery doing what he does. Last time we won in here, he hit a game winner in the same spot from that corner. I knew it was going in and if it didn’t, I would be there to tip it in.”
Again, Stevens targeted JR Smith, using a Jae Crowder cut to the hoop as a misdirection to set up the real action. With Marcus Smart staring down LeBron James on the strong side, the Celtics knew they could get a weak-side shot off without worrying about LeBron intervening.
With six seconds left, Bradley set the down screen in the corner on Crowder’s man Iman Shumpert. Smith tried to switch onto Crowder’s cut to the hoop, but Shumpert followed him as well. This meant Avery Bradley was free and clear to run back to the weak-side elbow as they danced around figuring out who would close out. Horford pinned Tristan Thompson down to the free throw line — which may have been a foul if it weren’t the final play — giving Bradley comfortable space to catch the Marcus Smart pass on the money and step into his shot.
“Coming out, we were going to switch one through five,” Cavs coach Ty Lue said. “They ran like a point-loop action, I call it, and Crowder curled. Then the switch got confused, and we didn't get a chance to switch out. Then Horford did a great job of pinning Tristan so he couldn't get out to the shooter.”
This was the best execution the Celtics had pulled off this playoffs. Every man in the play ran his route, held his line or fired his ball in perfect coordination. Bradley heaped praise on Stevens for the design.
“He did a great job of putting us in the right position, forcing them to have to help and not be able to switch. Al Horford made a great screen and Marcus Smart made an even better pass, and I was able to knock down a shot. It was a great play by Brad.”
It was a double whammy for Cleveland. Not only had Boston hit a three, but the ball bouncing on the rim took an extra 1.8 second off the clock down to 0.1. It was essentially a buzzer beater. Those extra seconds was all Stevens could think about in the moment.
“Thank God it's bouncing on the rim because that's taking time. If it goes in or doesn't go in, they have a timeout left. We wanted to go at six seconds, and the hope was that they'd have less than one if they did get the ball. So when it bounced around, I was actually hoping it went in, obviously, but not completely disappointed that it was bouncing up there.”
A crucial part of the Celtics’ consistent success in ATOs is their commitment to the play. They don’t bail out and they see all the actions all the way though, regardless of how loudly the clock is ticking down.
“I think that one of the good things about this team is we're able to believe in whatever Brad draws up,” Bradley said. “If it's a good play, bad play, whatever it is, we all believe in it. I think that always helps because you're able to just read and react after that.”
Bradley pointed particularly to the second-to-last basket, the Jerebko jumper he assisted, as the epitome of the trust Stevens has earned from his team.
“One of the plays that he drew up when Jonas Jerebko hit the shot, it was for me to lay the ball up. But it was a play that I knew that if they helped, Jonas would be wide open, and he was able to knock down his shot. Those are all plays that Brad makes, and then it's our job to go out there and make sure that we make the next right play.”
Once Jonas Jerebko hit the floor in the middle of the third quarter, the Celtics whittled down the Cavs’ 21-point lead by consistently fighting to make the right play. But in the end, their season will survive because they are helmed by The ATO Whisperer.