If you had a vote to decide how the Celtics clutched out a close game, what would you choose?
Would you want a Jayson Tatum buzzer beater? Perhaps a powerful Jaylen Brown drive leading to a foul and some clutch free throws?
Or maybe you’re the guy sitting next to me tonight who had Kristaps Porzingis under 18.5 points in a parlay and just wanted to make sure he didn’t score any more points. Taking the under on a guy heroically returning from injury when you’re GOING to the game is pretty lame, but whatever floats your boat, I guess.
If I had a vote, I’d want Celtics-Pacers V to end exactly like it did: with back-to-back blocks.
Say that out loud. “Back to back blocks” is a collection of words that sounds sick no matter how you say it, regardless of context. Imagine you are in a loud coffee shop, eavesdropping on that couple the next table over but can only catch a few words at a time. Imagine one of them says “blah, blah blah blah-blah BACK TO BACK BLOCKS blah blah, blah.” It doesn’t matter what the rest of the sentence was, you know that dude is awesome.
Before we get any more ahead of ourselves, here’s the first of our back-to-back blocks, executed by the ever-admirable Derrick White:
Regardless of if it’s back-to-back or not, blocking a three is another play that is objectively always cool. It’s actually a really rare play, with Matisse Thybulle perennially leading the league with about 20 per year. White is now tied for fourth this year with Tyrese Haliburton of all people.
It’s certainly a very impactful play, potentially saving three points and usually resulting in either a turnover or a very sketchy shot clock situation, which is what happened here. But if the play is so rare and hard to execute, why does Thybulle lead the category every year? And why are White and Haliburton—polar opposites in terms of defensive impact—tied for fourth most?
I’d argue that blocking jump shots is something you either get or you don’t. If it was easy, it would happen a lot more, and the very act of contesting a shot is a stressful situation. Nobody wants to be the guy that fouled a three-point shooter, as that will usually earn you the dumbest-guy-on-the-floor award for at least a few minutes.
It’s also just really hard to get a hand on the ball when almost all modern NBA players are specialists at getting shots up quick and through weak contests. As spacing and shooting has made their way all the way to youth basketball, everyone knows how to get a shot up cleanly.
There’s a reason we talk about three-point variance rather than three-point defense. The NBA has basically accepted that every team can and will produce solid looks from deep, with most teams just hoping that they can win the percentage battle. They certainly used to, but today no announcer will say, “man, they have to guard up more on these threes.”
And most players think that way, too. Next time you turn on an NBA game, try to look at how seriously players contest threes, usually only offering the obligatory hand-in-the-face to at least present some visual resistance. Some guys literally just stick their hand in front of the shooter’s eyes, accepting that they have no chance of actually affecting the shot motion off a closeout.
But this also means most guys won’t expect an actual contest, and White has made a living by exploiting this expectation. Shooters like Nesmith expect a clean airspace to get a shot off, which means White has an edge in altering the shot. The ball ended up out of bounds with only three seconds left on the shot clock.
But again, only some guys get it. The way White closes the gap with straight-line speed while still remaining completely outside of Nesmith’s landing area isn’t something you can teach. It requires a natural understanding of defensive spacing that very few possess. It’s not as though White is doing anything physically superhuman either, but so few players could have even made it to his position legally.
In short, it was a really nice block, the first of our back-to-back blocks. Speaking of the back-to-back blocks, here’s the second of the back-to-back blocks. I just like saying it.
Now this one does require some superhuman physical capabilities. Tatum actually loses Myles Turner on a pretty good swim move inside, establishing strong positioning inside with both Tatum and Porzingis a step behind. But look closely at the angles of the shot. Porzingis’ contest comes from the wrong angle, and had Tatum reacted a split second later, Turner would likely have finished right through Porzingis to make it a one-point game with plenty of time.
Instead, Tatum recovers by executing a preemptive strike. He jumps well before he even knows which angle Turner is going for, with Tatum realizing that while his mark has solid positioning, there’s not a lot of space between the ball and the rim. If Tatum can plug that space, he has a chance to shut the whole thing down.
And that’s exactly what happened. The only thing left to do was out-muscle Turner, something Tatum was more than capable of doing. The ball finds its way out to no man’s land, and the ensuing shot clock violation was the buttercream icing on the cake.
The Celtics’ late game execution on offense is definitely worthy of scholarly study. How a player as smart as Jrue Holiday committed an eight-second violation is beyond me, as is how certain possessions leave Porzingis marooned in the corner when he’s being guarded by the foot-shorter Andrew Nembhard.
But ultimately, the Celtics should always be able to fall back on their defense. Sure, you might not always win the variance battles or the whistle, but so long as you can execute a sick pair of back-to-back blocks to seal it, every little thing is gonna be all right.