Closing strong has not been a strength of 2019-20 Boston Celtics this year, at least since the All-Star Break. The Green had coughed up leads in the last minute of regulation or in overtime on four separate occasions during the final 10 games of the regular season before NBA play was suspended. Since the All-Star Break, they have a -0.2 net rating during clutch situations (last five minutes of a game with a point differential of five or less), going an ugly 4-6 in those contests.
Whether it was fouling 3-point shooters on game-tying at the buzzer (Caris LeVert) or getting stripped in the backcourt during a one-possession game (Dennis Schroder on Kemba Walker) to lose the lead, several miscues loomed large and produced a mediocre 5-5 record heading into the NBA’s hiatus.
The late-game struggles continued on Friday night against Milwaukee. While the officials did the Celtics no favors by spotting Giannis Antetokounmpo an extra foul, the C’s also allowed the Bucks to close out a tie game in the final 90 seconds with a 12-5 run. Boston not only went cold but they couldn’t get stops. Struggling late against the NBA’s best team after a four-month layoff is excusable but it was another sign that the C’s weren’t executing like they need to during crunch time.
On Sunday afternoon, disaster nearly struck again. The Celtics looked to be on the verge of avoiding a horrific loss by recovering after blowing a 24-point first-half lead. Jaylen Brown appeared to lock the game up by hitting a clutch 3-pointer from the corner with 31 seconds left to give the C’s a six-point lead off a Jayson Tatum’s career-best eighth assist. Brown scored 16 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter and all six of his shots in the frame, none bigger than the corner snipe than gave the C’s a 98.5 percent win probability according to Numberfire with 31 ticks left. Tatum added a game-high 34 points as well, giving the duo 30-plus points in the same game for the second time in their career.
“The pass to Jaylen at the end of the game was a great play, but (Tatum) had several drive-and-kicks where he just made the right decision. I thought he played really well. I thought Jaylen’s shot-making was probably as critical as anything else to the game,” Stevens said.
The good vibes from those shots and assists by Boston’s young stars would have meant nothing however if the C’s didn’t close out the win and they did not make it easy on themselves late. Carmelo Anthony came right back to drill an open 3 after Brown’s corner triple thanks to a foolish double team on Jusuf Nurkic left Anthony open on the perimeter with only four seconds coming off the clock.
That opened the door for the Blazers to play some defense with 27 seconds left on the game clock in a three-point game. Ball pressure at midcourt from the Blazers forced an ill-advised pass from Tatum that led to a. backcourt violation after Gordon Hayward reeled it in too quickly (since he hadn’t established footing in the frontcourt yet). Once again, disaster was on the doorstep for Boston with the Blazers having the ball and arguably the NBA’s best pull-up 3-point shooter in the league in Damian Lillard (next to Steph Curry).
Marcus Smart made one impressive stop of Lillard on the ensuing possession, deflecting a pass from the All-Star that ultimately produced a loose ball foul on Daniel Theis with 6.8 seconds remaining as he battled for the ball with Nurkic. At that point, the chess game really began though for Stevens, who tried an unconventional tactic that paid dividends after the review timeout.
Trailing by 3 with between 5-10 seconds remaining in the NBA is a dangerous game. The lure of the quick 2 is there to remain within striking distance but realistically for a team without timeouts (like the Blazers in this spot) taking the 2 is a bad choice. Attempting a 3 is the preferred option in that spot since there is no guarantee you’ll get a chance to tie the game on a future possession (going the entire length of the floor while avoiding getting fouled on the floor).
The Blazers knew this and planned on getting up a 3 by any means necessary in this critical spot out of the timeout.
“We were looking to get a three not a two on that play,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts confirmed afterward.
Everyone on the court knew the ball was going to the red-hot Lillard, who had pulled up from nearly 38 feet earlier in the fourth quarter and is a threat anywhere on the floor. Marcus Smart switched onto him immediately after the inbounds play as the rest of the C's matched up with Blazers on the perimeter in a matchup zone. What the rest of the Celtics did after is where Stevens got crafty as they tried to prevent Lillard from firing from the parking lot.
After Nurkic releases his screen on Smart, he heads into the paint on the roll followed by no one on the Celtics. His primary man (Theis) was instead waiting at the 3-point line to help defend Lillard and zone the 3-point line. Boston’s other defenders (Hayward, Brown) were attached to other key 3-point shooters after the inbounds play, leaving no one on the entire Celtic roster within five feet of the uncontested paint. The Celtics were going to dare Portland to take the easy two.
“The game has changed because you have to be able to guard four, sometimes five positions out to 25 feet,” Stevens said of the Blazers shooting tactics. “Then the very best players and the teams with the best spacing stretch you out to 30. So that’s why defense is so much harder, because you have to cover so much more ground. That’s why it takes so much energy to guard on that end of the floor. The level of offensive player in the league, specifically Lillard and McCollum, they make that stuff look so easy. It’s kind of a joke to be honest, how good they are.”
While Nurkic was unmanned, Lillard dribbled to his sweet spot on the left side and was met by Smart, Theis and Tatum helping off Carmelo Anthony as he lifted up for a 3-ball. The crowd of defenders combined with Nurkic heading uncontested into the paint coaxed him into a bad choice: Settling for an easy two instead of a potential game-tying shot.
"In my mind, I was going to catch it and fire,” Lillard said. “ I caught it and I was going to shoot it, and I overthought it. I throw it to Nurk...It didn't work out. I should've just taken the shot."
If there were under five seconds left on the clock, leaving all the defenders on the perimeter would have been an obvious tactic, but the middle ground (6.8 seconds) on the clock here offered the possibility that Lillard could be convinced to take the quick two points. It’s instinctual to pass to the open man in that spot and that’s the trap Lillard