It had not been the prettiest stretch of crunch time for Kyrie Irving entering the final 10 seconds of Friday’s thriller against the Pacers. The All-Star point guard had missed one tough baseline fadeaway two possessions earlier and had been stripped (probably on a foul) by Wesley Matthews on the previous possession, which led to a turnover. The Pacers have one of the toughest defenses in the league even without Victor Oladipo and they have the length and speed to make life tough for guards in the halfcourt.
So with the game and any chance at homecourt advantage in the first round on the line (the Celtics weren’t going to close a two-game gap in standings with their closing schedule if they lost on Friday) Brad Stevens got creative with the final play of the game, notching the first win of a chess match that will go on between these two clubs over the next few weeks. Given how inconsistent the C’s bottom half of the roster has been all year long, Boston is going to need the coaching checkbox to be strongly in their favor on all postseason. Friday night was a promising sign on that front amid a tough year for Stevens.
A closer look at a few maneuvers that paid off big down the stretch for the head coach as the Celtics squeaked out a 114-112 victory.
1. Stevens goes full-court inbound for ATO game winner: With 10 seconds remaining and the Celtics clearly holding for one final shot in a tie game, the head coach got a bit unorthodox. Instead of advancing the ball past halfcourt (the usual option after a timeout), Stevens opted for a full-court attack with the final 10 seconds. The move was a calculated one, anticipating the pressure that Irving was bound to face from a Pacers double team that was likely to come. Instead, the alignment helped Boston avoid this pressure with Gordon Hayward inbounding the ball to a wide open Al Horford. He brought the ball up the floor and was able to get the ball to Irving with five seconds remaining, which gave Irving plenty of time to attack.
“Sometimes in the half court against really physical teams like this it’s hard to even get the ball in bounds, especially if they know you’re going to hold it for eight seconds,” Stevens explained. “So, you know, we wanted to use the whole court. It was supposed to go to Kyrie (Irving) off the inbound; they doubled him. So Al got the inbound and took it the length of the floor, which is fine, and then he found Kyrie when we just wanted to give him space on that side of the floor.”
“They did a good job, the possession before, defending and getting their hands and getting a steal there towards the end,” Horford added. “Coach kinda -- I guess he was probably trying to probably spread the floor a little more and giving Kyrie space to work.”
Kyrie Irving puts the Celtics up by 2 with 0.5 second left pic.twitter.com/c445dvBkLv
— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) March 30, 2019
2. Keeping the play call simple with the right personnel on the floor: The Celtics haven’t had great success in crunch time in recent weeks. Irving has missed a couple of opportunities at wins in Milwaukee and Philadelphia and has also simply not gotten the ball in certain key situations (@ Charlotte, @ Orlando) as well in recent losses. Stevens clearly prioritized getting Irving the ball here and he spaced the floor in a way that created a wide-open opportunity to get to the rim for Irving.
Using Horford at the top of the key as an outlet pulled Myles Turner, the top defensive presence on the Pacers, out of his path. Turner was afraid of conceding the 3 and so Irving’s hesitation with a potential pass to his veteran teammate pulled Turner back towards Horford. From there, Irving had a clear lane opened up as the strong side help (Thaddeus Young) was more concerned about leaving Jayson Tatum for a wide open 3 (3-of-3) on the night than slowing down Irving. With Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward as decoys their men with some movement on the weakside, the Pacers simply failed to stop the ball at the point of attack, giving Irving one of his easiest layups of the game with 0.5 seconds remaining.
“It was great,” Horford said. “It was one of those things where I kind of had to make a decision and I still felt like, if I gave him the ball, he was going to have a lot of room to operate. He had the option to either throw it back to me or go attack. He kept the defense on their toes because he still faked like he was going to pass it to the corner then lay it up at the very end. Just a very, very crafty player.”
“I saw that they were going to try to deny me with Corey and Wes, and I told Al just take off, get it up the court, buy us some time,” Irving explained. “I went and got it, and I saw Myles Turner about to commit to the double team and then I just kind of gave a pass fake with my eyes and then went to the rim. Thankfully it went in.”
The sequence is a tribute to the offensive firepower and spacing the Celtics can have on the floor at any given time right now in crunch time. Irving likes to do it himself in isolation situations, but the more he uses the threat of his teammates getting the ball, the better looks he should get for this team down the stretch. Stevens put the right guys around him at the right spots on the floor and that's all the hosts needed to get a great shot.
Despite the win, the Celtics still managed to dodge some serious bullets down the stretch. Thaddeus Young missed a wide open layup after blowing by Aron Baynes late, while Irving got repeatedly abused in the pick-and-roll by Darren Collison in the closing minutes, which opened up some free jumpers that didn’t go down. Irving and the Celtics are going to have to be far better on defense to beat the Pacers in a seven-game series, but they’ve got Stevens pulling the right strings on that path again with lineup choices (Baynes playing a season-high 33 minutes) and late-game playcalls. Homecourt advantage may very well decide Round 1 (Pacers have lost 10-straight on the road) and Stevens made sure the Celtics kept that possibility in play with his ending to this one.