Towards the end of the first half in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Shane Larkin passed up a semi-contested layup in transition to kick it out to Terry Rozier for three. Rozier sunk the shot, putting the Celtics in a 35-25 lead with six minutes left in the second quarter.
The Sixers then went on a 15-8 scoring run over the next five minutes. Joel Embiid posterized Aron Baynes, JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli hit transition threes and the Philadelphia crowd was as loud as it as been all season long. It was a similar scene to what the Celtics did to the Sixers before halftime in Game 2.
In the midst of the flurry, Brad Stevens called a time out, something that Brett Brown drew criticism for not doing in Game 2. The Celtics regrouped, forced a few turnovers and scored five points in the final minutes of the first half compared to Philadelphia’s one.
In what could have been a game-changing run, Stevens shifted the momentum back to his team’s end. Boston then held then held the Sixers to 17 points in the third quarter. They sustained the Sixers’ best punch, leaving the rest of the game up to pinpoint execution down the stretch.
The time out won’t go down as the highlight of the game for Stevens. The gorgeous ATO he drew up for Al Horford’s go ahead layup in overtime is the play people will point to for his genius. Stevens has always had a win-the-next-play philosophy for his players, and the subtle move he made by halting Philadelphia’s momentum opened the door for him to later drive a dagger into their hearts using his whiteboard.
The play was a masterful showing of misdirection and forcing a mismatch. Rozier and Jayson Tatum cleared out of the paint to give Marcus Morris a release valve while also keeping the paint clear for the main action happening with Horford and Jaylen Brown.
The Sixers were switching everything, so when Tatum came through the lane to force Robert Covington on Brown, Brown then darted to the top of the key with Embiid now switched on him. That left Horford with a ton of space around the basket with the much smaller Covington on his hip.
It’s a play that will go down in infamy in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future, but it almost didn’t happen. During the final 30 seconds of the fourth quarter, Marco Belinelli hit two free throws to put the Sixers ahead by two. Brown took the ball baseline for the Celtics but lost the handle on it. Luckily Morris was there to pick it up in the left corner.
With ten seconds left on the shot clock, Morris started to go into his motion of taking a contested mid-range jump shot off the bounce. Knowing that there was still plenty of time on the clock and realizing Morris was about to do something he wouldn’t like, Stevens called timeout right before his forward released the ball.
Stevens then drew up this beauty to tie the game. Boston then went ahead after Rozier’s steal and Brown’s layup, but Belinelli hit an off balanced jumper to send the game into overtime.
On this one Horford screens for Rozier on the opposite wing to keep Embiid away from the paint. Morris then screens for Brown so Ersan Ilyasova switches on. The key detail in this play is that Redick is between Brown and the basket, but the way Morris screens for Brown forces Ilyasova to trail behind, giving Brown an easy layup at the rim.
For Stevens, the subtle calls he made throughout the game set him up for the big time ATO’s that he drew up in key situations. Just like he tells his players to just “hit singles,” Boston’s head coach resembled that philosophy to a point in his team’s stunning victory on Saturday.
As the Celtics go for the sweep on Monday to advance to their second straight Eastern Conference Finals, Stevens continues to build his reputation as the NBA’s master tactician. Next season he’ll have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to insert into his schemes, posing a potential nightmare scenario for any team hoping to contend in the East.
Videos from Tomek Kordylewski