2018 NBA Playoffs

Defying convention: How Brad Stevens’ late-game tactics paved way for 3-0 series lead

(Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA -- Marcus Morris is a chucker.

That’s not always a bad thing, but it is rightfully what the veteran forward is known for first by Celtics fans. Morris takes (and sometimes makes) a lot of tough shots, but Game 3 against the Sixers was not his night. He finished 3-of-14 from the field with nine points, but his defense made him an integral part of the C’s 101-98 overtime win anyway (plus-13 in 35 minutes).

Still, he wasn’t Brad Stevens' first choice be in the game during crunch time. Marcus Smart fouled out with 40 seconds remaining, forcing Stevens to turn to Morris as the only capable shooter left on the Boston bench. With Boston trailing 87-85 with 40 seconds remaining, the C’s needed a basket to tie things up.

Stevens opted to start the possession without a timeout, but a Jaylen Brown drive to the rim produced nothing as he passed the ball out to Marcus Morris in the left corner. At that point, with just 10 seconds left on the shot clock and Morris improvising, Stevens knew exactly where the ball was going as Morris faced up against Ben Simmons and it wasn’t into one of his teammate’s hands. It would be Morris vs. Simmons with Game 3 for the Celtics on the line.

Stevens rightfully did not like that matchup, so he called timeout right as Morris hoisted up a shot.

The move saved the game for the Celtics.

Stevens is no stranger to calling timeouts in the middle of a possession. In fact, it’s one of his best attributes as a head coach. While others are content to let a possession go nowhere after the initial play call does not pan out, Stevens refuses to watch things go awry when he can still have a say in the matter.

Perhaps most famously prior to Game 3, Stevens called a timeout against the Raptors in 2015 after the Celtics inbounded the ball with four seconds remaining. The head coach did not like how things looked within the play call and called yet another timeout with 2.7 seconds remaining. The move was a risky one, since getting the ball in after an inbounds pass can be a challenge in such a tight window. Still, the decision led to him drawing up this game-winner.

That same aggressive approach panned out in the closing moments of Game 3 on Saturday.

After putting a stop to the Morris jumper, Stevens drew up a gem that took advantage of the Sixers' switching strategy. Brown cut from the corner to set a screen for Morris, but he never set it. Instead, he cut to the rim with a step on Ersan Ilyasova. The smaller Brown had the athleticism advantage on Ilyasova and beat him to the lob pass from Jayson Tatum. He uses a head fake and finished the layup.

The Celtics got a layup instead of a contested midrange jumper. That’s the power of a savvy play call and terrific foresight.

“That’s a hell of a play call from Brad Stevens,” Brown declared. “They’d been switching all game, he called a play, I sealed a switch and scored a layup.”

Even though Morris had the ball taken out of his hands during the sequence, he couldn’t help but be in awe of his head coach.

“That man Brad Stevens is a guru,” Morris said. “He might have the best out of bounds plays I’ve ever seen. He called the switch and knew it was going to happen.”

Of course, Stevens wasn’t done. With the Celtics trailing by one with 14 seconds remaining in overtime, Morris rebounded a Ben Simmons putback attempt (how did he not bring that ball out with a one-point lead?) and brought the ball up on the right wing. Al Horford was set up in the post against Ilyasova, but Stevens again couldn’t be sure that Morris would not try to win this game himself with Joel Embiid guarding him on the perimeter. He called timeout yet again mid-possession, with only eight seconds remaining in the game.

“(This is) my second year with Coach Stevens and I’ve learned to just trust his instincts and judgment,” Al Horford said. “He sees certain things and understands them. I didn’t have success a couple of times against Ilyasova and some of those guys in the post. They did a good job defending it, so he didn’t feel comfortable with it. I wanted to go in and score, but coach just seems like he makes the right decision every time.”

After getting a look at the Sixers defense that smothered and switched everything on his initial ATO (after timeout) play call, Stevens used his final timeout and adapted once more. If the Sixers were going to switch, he was going to find the mismatch he wanted and get the Sixers rim protection (i.e. Embiid) away from the basket.

Embiid started out on Horford during the possession, but eventually switched onto Brown who went toward the arc. The same went for Simmons, who latched onto Tatum. Tatum, Brown, and Rozier all brought their men above the arc, which left a wide-open paint for Horford in a mismatch against Robert Covington. The All-Star took his time and finished the layup.

Compare those plays to the Sixers’ execution in crunch time (two turnovers on poor passes after timeouts in the final minute of overtime) and it’s easy to see the Brad Stevens difference. After a rare hiccup in Milwaukee last week (a potential game-winner was defended very well by the Bucks) he puts his players in position to win games time and time again.

“We got two game-winning, game-tying buckets — layups,” Brown explained. “That says it all. You know, we played hard, we fought, it was a tough environment, but when it came to an ATO to draw up a big basket that we needed, we were getting layups. I tip my hat off to Brad Stevens.”

Now, the Celtics are fully in the driver’s seat with a 3-0 series lead over a Sixers team that was somehow favored by 9.5 points at home in Game 3. Boston doesn’t win this game without superb efforts from Tatum (game-high 24 points), Rozier (18 points, 7 rebounds) and Brown (16 points, 9 rebounds).

However, on a night the Celtics shot 3-of-16 from the 3-point range in the second half, Stevens knew this group would need high-percentage looks to pull the victory out and delivered the game — and probably, the series.