There is an old adage in coaching circles about facing long odds when you go on the road for a game that goes: “We have to go there anyway. Might as well go to win it.” The Boston Celtics had to go to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4—might as well win them.
After getting demolished at home by a Cavaliers team that looks like they are on a mission to defend their title, the Celtics were one of the largest playoff underdogs in NBA history. Cleveland was favored by 16 points at the tip, and some suggested it should have been higher. The Cavs were cruising as the game went along, eventually leading by as many as 21 points. But the Celtics fought back and pulled off the biggest upset, in terms of point spread, in NBA playoff history.
The TNT crew did a good job of capturing Brad Stevens imploring his team to “stay together and play harder. If we play hard, they’ll let us back in the game.” Both things proved true. With their leader sidelined for the season, it was a true team effort that took everyone. Eleven Celtics played, and Boston got contributions up and down the roster. But it was the guy on the sideline who stood out the most.
LeBron James made sure to tell CelticsBlog’s own Jared Weiss that he said before the series that Stevens is an ATO (After Time Out) genius:
Asked LeBron about Celtics ATOs and he wanted to make sure everyone knows that he said before the series Stevens is an ATO genius.— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 22, 2017
Stevens has become famous for hoarding his timeouts. One can imagine he fits the old joke about the coach on his deathbed croaking out “but I’ve got one timeout left!” Sometimes fans (ok…media too!) are screaming “Call a TO!” as the Celtics are blitzed by a big run, but Stevens believes in two things: letting the team play through troubles to figure it out and having timeouts available when he needs them at the end of games. And when you can draw up the magic he can, as he did in Game 3 in Cleveland, it all pays off.
ATO number one came with just under a minute to go. The Celtics went with a lineup of Al Horford, Jonas Jerebko, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. At this point in the game the main offensive weapon had been Smart, with Bradley providing support and Jonas Jerebko being hot. Remember those last two as they will come up later. Back to this play:
Smart enters the ball to Horford on the right block. This is a big switch, as Horford had been posting on the left block for most of the game. The first look is for Bradley backdoor, but Kyrie Irving stays with him. Second look is Crowder on the opposite wing, but James is lurking in the passing lane. Marcus Smart, realizing the shot clock is low, spaces so far out that he’s out of the frame when the shot goes up. This gets him back on defense, in the case of a miss. Jerebko slides up to the wing as Horford drives so that he can also get back, and Crowder and Bradley prepare to crash the boards, which Boston did with great success throughout the game. It wasn’t necessary to crash, as Horford muscled up a runner over Thompson that went in.
The genius there is going to Horford at all. While he had a big game, Stevens could have just as easily drawn up the play for one of the other guys with the hot hand. Instead he put the ball in the hands of his best player with Isaiah Thomas sidelined, trusting that Horford would make the right play, be it shot or pass.
ATO number two features the same personnel. This time the game is tied at 106 with 36 seconds left. Stevens is famous for putting his team in position to get a two-for-one opportunity at the end of the half or game. With a shot at an upset on the road, you want to take the last shot. That means you have to go quickly with the first possession of the two-for-one. That is exactly what happens here:
The action begins on the inbounds pass. Smart has two options here: Bradley coming off the high screen from Horford, or Crowder going to the corner off the cross screen with Jerebko. J.R. Smith is far more worried about the near-side corner (as he should be) and angles that way. This gives Bradley a free catch at the top of the key with Irving in the trail position. James and Kevin Love handle the cross screen down low with ease, but that was just dummy action anyway. The real goal is to get Bradley going to the hoop with a head of steam.
Immediately after passing the ball in, Smart acts like he’s cutting through. What he’s really doing is creating a mess in the middle of court. Some will say it is an illegal screen, but Smart is as much entitled to that spot as Irving is. The real culprit is Smith, who turns his back to Bradley and leaves the lane wide open. Tristan Thompson, who was a monster inside all game, stays glued to Horford. By the time Bradley elevates in the paint, he’s got four guys converging on him. All he has to do is find a shooter. He makes the easiest pass available, given his angle, to Jerebko. The only downside? Jerebko steps on the line, making it a long two-point shot versus a three-pointer. But the concern is a score, not necessarily the type of score.
ATO number three is probably the best one of all. With 10 seconds left, after having successfully played the two-for-one game, the Celtics are going to take the last shot in a tie game:
James is defending Smart, perhaps expecting him to play the IT role and take the last shot. If nothing else, it puts a long defender on Smart, which can muck up passing lanes. Irving stays stuck to Jerebko in the strong-side corner for the entire play. Horford has Thompson pulled away from the paint. But all of this is just noise. The real game is with Crowder and Bradley. Bradley sets a “screen” to free Crowder cutting across the wide open paint. But that isn’t what Boston really wants. As Crowder cuts across the paint, he’s actually open for a split second, but the play design is for Bradley to take a three to win the game. Both Smith and Iman Shumpert, with years of “protect the basket first!” ingrained in them, follow Crowder, which leaves Bradley free.
One more key to the play? Thompson’s job is to drop off Horford and pick up the shooter, especially with the clock running down. Stevens knows this, so he has Horford screen his own man, which you rarely see. Even if the screen was questionable, no official is calling it at that point in the game and when he screens his own man. Combine it all and Bradley gets the game winner, after a shooter’s bounce, which ran the rest of the clock out.
The Celtics are undermanned and probably don’t have the horses to win the series. But by staying together and playing hard they kept it close. And if they keep it close, the guy on the sideline can draw up the plays to get them over the top. LeBron James is right about a lot of things, and you can add Brad Stevens: ATO Genius to the list.