fb-pixel Skip to main content

The indelible image from the Celtics' 85-84 win over the Jazz Wednesday night will be of center Tyler Zeller catching an inbounds pass from Marcus Smart with 1.7 seconds left, gathering himself, and converting a layup at the buzzer.

But that play was the culmination of so many moving parts, as a fascinating chess match unfolded in the game's final moments.

The chain of events was set in motion when Utah's Gordon Hayward — the former pupil of Celtics coach Brad Stevens — converted a difficult 14-footer to put the Jazz in front by a point. Boston called timeout and Stevens called upon rookie guard Smart to inbound the ball to Jae Crowder from the sideline near the Celtics' bench.

Advertisement



Crowder could not break free, though, time began to tick, and Smart called another timeout just as he was in danger of receiving a five-second violation. Still, that sequence provided some valuable information.

First, the Jazz had sent their athletic, 7-foot-1-inch center Rudy Gobert to harass the inbounds play with his lengthy wingspan. That would make it difficult for the 6-4 Smart to have a clear view, but it also meant that Gobert would not be lurking in the post to block a shot. Secondly, and most importantly, the Jazz showed their hand by switching defensively on that play.

Stevens was confident they would switch again, potentially giving the Celtics an edge. The pass was to go to Zeller, who would ideally find himself with a size advantage to exploit. As Zeller walked onto the court, reserve forward Gigi Datome stopped him and reminded him that 1.7 seconds offered enough time for a pump fake.

Smart said he had no second option. He said if the play for Zeller began to crumble, he was instructed to call timeout, and Stevens would design something new.

Advertisement



When the teams walked back onto the court, Gobert once again was guarding the inbounds pass. Jazz coach Quin Snyder said later that Gobert was too far back from Smart. Gobert said he should have been in the paint, protecting the rim like usual.

Regardless, hindsight could not help the Jazz. Zeller stood near the top of the key and was guarded by 6-10 Derrick Favors. Zeller did not think the Jazz would switch again, so he was quickly flipping through his arsenal of post moves in his head.

But as he dashed toward the basket, the Jazz switched defensively, just as Stevens had expected, just as he had hoped. Zeller found himself matched up against 6-8 Rodney Hood.

Still, the Celtics needed Smart to get the ball to him, which meant getting it past Gobert's long arms.

"Man, it was tough," Smart said. "I had to pass-fake the ball to get him leaning one way, and Tyler did a great job sealing his man off."

Added Stevens: "If Gobert tips it, the game is basically over."

With Hood fronting Zeller, Smart held the ball above his head and lofted a perfect pass toward the basket. Hayward slid over to double-team Zeller after he caught it, and Gobert came streaking into the paint, too.

The momentary opening was closing quickly. But Zeller gathered himself, spun, and converted a layup off the backboard as time expired. His celebration was muted because he was not certain he had beaten the buzzer.

Advertisement



"I was about 90 percent sure," Zeller said. "But there's always that little bit of doubt."

As the referees reviewed the play, the 16,354 fans at TD Garden already were bouncing in the aisles and celebrating as a replay was shown on the scoreboard. The Celtics had their win, and the plan had materialized just as planned, just in time.

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com.