Two seconds left on the clock, the Celtics were down two with two timeouts remaining. As Brad Stevens called his first TO, fans could be forgiven for dreaming. Stevens and his reputation for successful, detailed, after-timeout plays stand on solid foundations constructed over multiple successful seasons. However, in the ensuing two ATO’s, the Milwaukee Bucks had Boston’s number, and the final play of the game failed to swing the result in the Celtics’ favor.
In the first of the three inbounds plays, the ball never re-entered play, making it very difficult to provide you with footage of what went wrong for Boston. But let’s try our best to contextualize it.
To begin the play, the Celtics had Marcus Smart inbounding the ball from the baseline. Jayson Tatum is posted up on the strong-side block, with Jaylen Brown in the strong-side corner. Kemba Walker currently stands on the weak-side elbow, with Theis in the weak-side corner.
Clearly, the Celtics gameplan was to open up Tatum for a mid-range jumper and force overtime. Brown being in the corner provides the Celtics with a high-level second option, while positioning Walker around his hotspot was no fluke, either. Yet, the Bucks played aggressive man defense on the inbound play, giving no Celtic any space to receive the pass.
Brook Lopez was arguably the biggest disruptor in the Bucks defensive sequence, simultaneously taking away Theis, then Walker, and finally Tatum with intelligent positioning and smart rotations on help defense. Lopez begins the play in the weak-side dunker spot, rotates over to the strong-side once Theis sets a screen for Walker, and closes Tatum’s space.
The result? Brad Stevens calls another time-out. A small victory for the Bucks defense.
The above clip shows both final sequences of the game. Let’s look at the second ATO before breaking down the last seconds.
With Smart operating as the inbounder again, we see some creativity from Stevens. Both Theis and Tatum are setting pin-downs and then curling towards either elbow. Brown, who has come off Theis’ pin, has burst middle but has Khris Middleton with him every step of the way.
Smart, now with multiple options, fires a bullet-pass at Brown which inevitably ends up getting tipped by Middleton, resulting in another baseline-out-of-bounds (BLOB) play.
And here’s where things get interesting.
Boston typically goes to one of their elite closers in moments like this, where the team needs a bucket to extend play or win the game. Having tried first to find Tatum and then Brown on their two ATO attempts, the team chose to run something different.
In one aspect, their decision worked exceptionally well: Theis was wide open when he received the ball. In another aspect, things went horribly wrong: Theis missed the shot.
Interestingly, the Celtics lined-up for this final position in a similar fashion to their original ATO, except with one key difference. Tatum in the post, Brown in the corner (except now it’s weak-side), and here’s the kicker, Theis, and Walker have switched places, with the veteran guard occupying the strong-side corner.
With Theis roaming around the free-throw line: an area where he’s considerably dangerous, Lopez is forced to sag on defense, allowing him to defend a drive from Theis or cut from either corner.
Jaylen Brown lifts from the corner, allowing Theis to shoot the gap between Brown and Middleton as he relocates to take Brown’s former position. Lopez, who’s focusing on the weak-side action between Tatum and Walker, fails to rotate over and close-out on Theis.
Ultimately, the Celtics big-man misses the shot. Yet, inverting their original ATO play to get the big an easy look from the corner was indeed a smart move. But was it the right move?
Theis is a career 32.8% shooter from the corner, on a sample size of 65 corner three’s in four years - that’s one hell of a gamble. Of those 65 attempts, 26 of them have come this season, with the multi-faceted big scoring at a 35% clip - which is roughly league average.
When looking at the shot in a vacuum, a stretch big taking an almost uncontested shot from the corner is a look you will live with ten out of ten times. The Bucks had done a fantastic job of taking away all other options for the Celtics. Any additional opportunity would have been considerably more contested in the most clutch of moments.
All-in-all credit should go to the Bucks for three hard-fought defensive possessions, and whoever drew up that final shot displayed a level of trust in Theis that players remember when the time comes to negotiate new contractual terms.