We all know that Brad Stevens is a wizard when it comes to late-game playcalling.
On Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the success and conversion from the Celtics in those situations belongs squarely on the shoulders of the players. That’s not because Stevens failed in his tactical approach, but because the Thunder defense required improvisation to beat it.
I don’t think everyone appreciates how many split-second decisions are made during a play while moving at full speed and dealing with immense defensive pressure. That’s what Jaylen Brown was dealing with all night, particularly down the stretch when Luguentz Dort was guarding him. Dort, a strong-bodied pest known for the clamps he can place on a foe, is a tough matchup for anyone.
Throughout the evening, the Thunder were switching or hiding behind screens and handoffs. Their mission was clear: stay underneath and switch the screens, meet the ball on the other side and dare the Celtics to jack threes. Part of that approach is why Boston launched almost fifty. The C’s were perfectly content taking them, countering the switches with three-person actions like staggers and screen-into-handoff combinations that can create communication breakdowns for an inexperienced defense.
Down five with 28 seconds to go, Stevens rolled the dice and drew up a play designed to attack Oklahoma City’s switching defense. He put five guards out there: Marcus Smart, Romeo Langford, Evan Fournier, Payton Pritchard and Brown, so there was playmaking and skill to attack the swapping of assignments. The play design, a Stagger Twirl action where Fournier curls around Brown as a means of helping Brown get more open off the second screener, is meant to cause confusion amongst switching teams.
Only the Thunder don’t switch. They stay with their man, and Dort jumps high side to try and deny Jaylen from using the screen. It’s a really smart defensive adjustment by the Thunder coaching staff.
But Brown, in his situational awareness and IQ, is smarter. He reads what Dort is doing and instead of fighting him, pushes Dort towards the screen before zipping backdoor and getting a clear lane to the hoop:
Stevens burned his last timeout a few seconds later in a similarly daunting situation: Boston down six with seven seconds to play. Everyone in the gym knows that the C’s need a three-pointer here. Dort recently top-locked Brown, so Stevens and his team are unsure about whether the Thunder will switch or stay. His play call has to work no matter what the Thunder do.
Boston starts with a stagger set again, this time with Brown coming cleanly off two screens as the recipient. He ends up making a nice read, getting a lazy defender on his back and breaking it off to the 3-point line before hitting a miracle shot.
But what you see, if you look closely, is Tristan Thompson trying to screen his own man to get Smart open, anticipating the Thunder switching everything. He gets that idea because Dort didn’t stay with Brown throughout the play like last time. This time, the Thunder switched.
So many split-second decisions go into late-game situations. Brown made two fantastic reads and basketball plays, and the Celtics were in a position to exploit late what the Thunder were willing to give up all game. Kudos to the Thunder for switching defensive coverages late as a means of keeping the Celtics guessing.