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Anatomy of Jayson Tatum’s missed game winner vs. Pacers

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Jayson Tatum took the blame, but it’s unfair to blame him for the broken play.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If you’ve become a fan of Brad Stevens’ after timeout wizardry, you know that so much happens before the inbounds pass. Al Horford’s game winner in Game 3 against the 76ers in 2018 is the perfect example.

For Stevens, it’s not just about getting the ball in your best shooter’s hands at the end of the game. He tries to leverage everything against an opponent’s defense: tendencies, switching schemes, footwork, misdirection, etc. On Sunday night against the Pacers, Stevens had another chance to draw up something special.

Coming out of the timeout, you can see Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren motion to Malcolm Brogdon to switch the coverage. Initially, Indiana had Doug McDermott on Marcus Smart, but Bjorkgren calls for Aaron the tougher and rangier Justin Holiday to cover Smart and the less athletic McDermott to stick Payton Pritchard. For lack of a better word, if Smart is part of the inbound action, it’s going to be funky. Best to have one of your better defenders involved.

There’s a fun little wrinkle right before referee Kane Fitzgerald gives Grant Williams the ball. Check out the weak side with Pritchard and Jaylen Brown in the corner. A moment before starting the five-second count, Brown takes a few steps to his left, drawing the attention of T.J. Warren and McDermott. It’s a tiny adjustment that means nothing, but it draws the attention of the defenders and that could be enough to show their hand on what kind of coverage they’re running or provide a small crack to take advantage of.

Here’s the meat of the play. In his post game presser, Stevens said, “we were looking for a little bit of action off of an entry where they were denying and it went to Tatum at the top.”

Bjorkgren guessed right. The outcome of the play was Tatum flashing between the circles after a Marcus Smart down screen, but I don’t think that was the first option. “The little bit of action” that Stevens is referencing is the two-man game between Smart and Tatum. Even before Grant touches the ball, Smart is telegraphing down screen the entire time. My guess is that Stevens and the Celtics were hoping for a switch with Holiday trailing Tatum to midcourt. If that had happened, Smart would have had Brogdon sealed on his back in the low post. Indiana was in the penalty and Smart has a knack of drawing contact on the block. Smart could have also cleared a driving lane for Tatum, too.

Unfortunately, Brogdon decides to fight through the screen and Domantas Sabonis does a great job pushing the action away from the basket. Smart is so far away from the restricted area and with the taller Holiday on him, it’s far from an advantageous mismatch.

Instead, Tatum took the same step back 3 that won the opener over Giannis Antetokounmpo with a different result.

“We had that as an option (Tatum in isolation) and then Grant slipped out of that thing and Tatum got separation, but that’s obviously a tough shot. But, he made it the other day,” Steven said of the final shot, but frankly, he sounded resigned with the analysis. “One of our best players and certainly one of the guys you want to have the ball with the game on the line in the league had the ball so that was a positive, I guess.”

Tatum shouldered much of the responsibility for the loss. “That’s a shot I take a lot and can hit, but you want to put pressure on the refs and defense in that situation,” he admitted. “It wasn’t the exact play we drew up, but I should have put more pressure on them. That’s on me in that situation. I take full blame.”

Sure, Tatum could have driven the ball and forced the issue. It’s what stars do in that situation. However, by all indications, this was a busted play that just didn’t break right in the end. They’ll get another crack against the Pacers on Tuesday night.