The Boston Celtics blew another double-digit lead on Saturday night, dropping a game to the Utah Jazz in crushing fashion. They were up big early on, but Utah battled back by way of a 23-5 run in the second quarter.
But despite Boston’s mid-game collapse and lackluster effort on the glass, the contest came down to one final play, a play that will undoubtedly be the focal point for most fans.
“The play was designed to get the ball to JT,” Grant Williams explained post-game. “Normally, the big is the one that’s guarding. They didn’t take the guy off the ball. They took Lauri off the ball. So, I got open against Lauri [Markkanen].”
With 5.0 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter, Boston lined up for potential game-winning inbound play. Tatum stood in the backcourt, a formation the Celtics have rolled out numerous times this season (with a ton of success), and Malcolm Brogdon got ready to pass the ball in.
Williams ran to Brogdon, but Markkanen cut him off when he tried to break right. He was forced to his left, away from Tatum, and from there, he had to improvise.
“He just tried to make a play,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said of Williams. “It was the way the defense played. They did a good job denying it with the inbounder, and then by the time he got it. he had to make a play.”
A play that was intended to end with a shot by Tatum ended in Williams making a run at the basket. He had a couple of options, but Utah did their best to cut off the corners.
“As soon as I caught it, I was right in the lane,” Williams said, breaking down the possession. “So, I took the dribble [and] tried to look up to see if anybody was available. JB [Jaylen Brown] fell to my left, and [I] potentially had to Sam [Hauser] to my right for a shot. By then, it was probably three seconds left on the clock. JT was in the backcourt. Malcolm was still out of bounds. So, I was like, ‘I got to get a shot up at least.’”
With no options available to him, Williams put up a shot against Walker Kessler in the paint. Kessler, who ranks fourth in the league in total blocks this season, sent the shot away, sealing a gritty comeback win for the Jazz.
Hindsight is 20/20, but in the heat of the moment, that was the decision that seemed best to Williams.
“There was no avenue in that scenario,” Williams said, reflecting on the play. “I probably could have shot a floater. Probably the better shot. Or even just trying to get that ball to Sam. But [Lauri] did a good job of bluffing and getting back out and forcing me into Walker.”
Once the Jazz forced Williams to stray away from the initial plan, it was as if the Celtics froze. And with only five seconds on the clock at the time of the inbound, there weren’t any alternatives for Williams to work with.
Brown was getting cut off by Talen Horton-Tucker in the corner. Hauser stood still in the corner, with Markkanen floating in between him and Williams. Brogdon never stepped onto the court, standing motionless in the spot where he inbounded the ball. And once Williams was forced toward the hoop, Tatum never walked past halfcourt.
It was a complete and utter disaster, and all Williams could do was try to make something happen.
“No. I’m not frustrated at Grant,” said Tatum. “If he made it, everybody would be happy. It’s not what we lost, that last play. It is what it is.”
With how well the Celtics played in the first half, the fact that the game came down to a final play should speak to how badly they got beat in key areas. Utah outrebounded them 56-40, including a 17-5 gap in their favor on the offensive glass.
Williams failed to make a play, but it should never have gotten to that point. He was forced into making a tough choice that he should never have needed to make.
“They were kind of denying me the ball, and the ball was in Grant’s hands,” said Tatum. “And he just had the option to go DHO to somebody else or go attack the basket. We have a baseline of what we try to do, but it’s all about the reaction. So, I don’t have an ego or anything. I wasn’t mad that Grant took that shot and didn’t pass it to me. It’s basketball. I want guys to play with instincts and just read the game.”