TORONTO — At the extreme buzzer, with the Celtics season at stake and the ball floating in the air, Marcus Smart cashed in with his biggest basket as a Celtic about 32.8 seconds after his previous biggest basket as a Celtic.
With Isaiah Thomas racing toward the basket and the Celtics trailing by 1 with 2.6 seconds left, Smart darted to secure a rebound. Instead, he caught what Thomas claims was a shuttle pass for a buzzer-beating layup to seal a dramatic 117-116 overtime win over the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
With Miami losing, the Celtics are now in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, one-half game ahead of the Heat with three precious days off to rest. The Celtics looked cooked when Lou Williams sank a side-pocket 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left for a 1-point lead, after Brandon Bass missed the second of two free throws.
Boston owned the ball with 4.9 seconds left in front of its bench. Smart inbounded to Jared Sullinger, who dribbled toward the basket. The play looked doomed with Sullinger, who hadn’t scored since Feb. 11, attempting the go-ahead shot that could determine the team’s playoff hopes.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens frantically called a timeout as Sullinger was in mid-dribble with 2.6 seconds left.
“I was calling timeout regardless,” Stevens said. “Our first option wasn’t open. I knew we had a timeout. And I saw the switch, [the Raptors] were switching [on defense]. We were lucky to have a timeout.”
On the next play, Stevens inserted Thomas into the backcourt and he raced toward halfcourt, taking the Evan Turner pass like Julian Edelman in stride as he was going for the basket.
“I [saw] the opening, I thought I got fouled at the last second, I [saw] Marcus right there and the only way I could get it out of my hands was to [underhand it],” Thomas said. “He made a hell of a shot, man.”
Thomas claimed it was a pass, saying he was fouled so hard by Williams that he couldn’t raise his arms to shoot. Smart picked up whatever it was to save Boston’s season.
“It was a missed shot,” Smart said, smiling. “But I said ‘good pass’ to him. I’ve always been taught that you have more time than you think you really do. I knew I had enough time to at least get a shot up. I just didn’t want to miss it. Most guys in that situation get nervous and they cut it short or throw it over the rim.”
After the ball touched the net, the Celtics began celebrating wildly, knowing their season was preserved in practically a must-win situation after Friday’s home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. As officials reviewed whether the basket was scored before the buzzer, the Raptors players headed for the locker room. They knew their fate.
“I thought I did enough,” Williams said of the final play. “With 2.6 seconds they are going full court. I thought I got the stop and it’s just a bad bounce that went right to Smart where he could grab it and put it in. It’s just tough.”
Smart put the Celtics ahead with a long, rainbow corner 3-pointer with 32.9 seconds left after Boston trailed by 3 on two occasions in overtime. Before that shot, he hadn’t converted a 3-pointer since the 8:53 mark of the second quarter. It was a stunning shot.
“It takes a little bit of riverboat gambler,” Stevens said. “I used to say that about inbounders. You need a little riverboat gambler in you. You can’t always be only safe. He took a risk. Right when he shot it, it was ‘that’s going in.’ He thinks that’s going in so I think that’s going in.”
The Celtics needed Smart’s heroics and a couple of key defensive stops to overcome the unstoppable DeMar DeRozan, who scored 21 of his 38 points after halftime. He brought the Raptors back from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit with a short jumper with 6.9 seconds left to force overtime.
After Williams began overtime with a 3-pointer for Toronto’s first lead since the second quarter, DeRozan followed with consecutive jumpers for a 111-108 lead. DeRozan added two free throws with 1:21 left for a 3-point lead but missed a 14-footer that would have given Toronto a 4-point lead.
Smart countered with his 3-pointer and the intrigue was about to begin.
Smart finished with 15 points and Thomas led Boston with 25. Tyler Zeller added 20 and Turner finished with 18 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals.
Turner dueled with DeRozan down the stretch in the fourth quarter.
The Celtics led, 100-94, with 2:14 left in regulation after a Bass dunk. But he missed the free throw and the Raptors tied the score with 53.3 seconds left.
Turner converted a twisting layup and then a jumper to put the Celtics ahead twice late in regulation. It was just enough for extra time.
“I think we are both trying to win really badly,” Turner said. “I’m just glad we won. Obviously we made a lot of plays and deserved the win. We overcame a lot.”