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Parquet plays: that intentional missed free throw in Portland

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Brad Stevens instructed Marcus Smart to brick it so the Celtics could win the game.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens didn’t go to Portland to play checkers. Tuesday night, he brought his chess pieces.

Late-game situational awareness from coaches and players to make split-second accurate decisions is much harder than it looks from the comfort of our couches. It’s also when coaches most easily earn their money. After Boston’s 116-115 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, it was apparent following the final sequence that Stevens had his fingerprints over the decision to ice the game for them.

The final few minutes were intense, featuring the Blazers crawling out of a seven-point deficit to tie it with two minutes remaining. Coach Terry Stotts called his final timeout with 7.8 seconds remaining following a masterful Jayson Tatum 3-pointer to put Boston up four, 116-112. With that timeout, the Blazers could advance up the sideline to get a great look, but Stevens knew they’d need another trick up their sleeve to knot the game up beyond their after timeout play.

Portland did their job to make it interesting and nerve-wracking. After that timeout, Norman Powell drained a deep 3-pointer, cutting the Blazers’ deficit to 116-115.

Stevens, in turn, burned his final timeout to advance the ball up the sideline, minimizing consequences if the Celtics turned over the inbound and allowed him to draw up a pressure release to get the ball in the hands of their desired free throw shooter. With five seconds to go, there was no confusion about the Blazers’ strategy. They would foul whoever caught the inbound, and do so quickly so they had enough time to inbound and go full-court for a quality shot at the buzzer.

Sure enough, the Celtics got their inbound to Marcus Smart, who was fouled with 3.5 seconds to play. Smart walked to the line, and Stevens’ wheels were already turning about what to do in case Smart missed.

That forethought led to this amazing sequence:

Brilliance to understand the numbers game and react in such a way was crucial. Essentially, Stevens was admitting that, with no timeouts and only 3.5 seconds, the Blazers were not going to get a two-point attempt. Once Smart missed the first, and a three-point Celtics lead was out of reach, making the second free throw would have been irrelevant and there was a clear path for Boston to lose: Damian Lillard going the other way for a buzzer-beater and a 118-117 win.

Stevens thought on his feet and prevented that. He instructed Smart to miss and, just as importantly, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker to trap Lillard 94 feet from the basket. With that much time remaining, a pass out of the trap wouldn’t create a quality look for Portland, and Lillard couldn’t drive through it far up the sideline, either. It worked to perfection.

As coach mentioned about the play in his postgame presser, “you have such a better chance of taking time away with [Portland] catching the ball going towards their basket. You know, Lillard doesn’t get a full head of steam coming down the floor, doesn’t get a chance to draw a foul on an out of bounds play, you know, all that stuff.”

The Celtics have won four consecutive games, longest active streak in the Eastern Conference, in several different ways. Tatum spearheaded a victory over Minnesota in overtime, a team defensive effort blitzed the Nuggets down the stretch, and now the brain of their leader clinched a road contest in Portland.

I guess you could say the C’s are firing on all cylinders of late.