INDIANAPOLIS — As the Celtics returned to the court trailing the Pacers by 1 point with 9.3 seconds left Monday, a puzzling loss was the most likely outcome. Indiana had the ball, the Celtics had no timeouts, and Boston’s 19-point lead seemed like a distant memory.
But these young Celtics have unusual confidence, even in situations that probably do not call for it. In this case, point guard Terry Rozier looked at his teammates with his usual aplomb.
“Let’s play some football,” he said.
The Celtics were instructed to trap the Pacers once, and then foul. The pass came in to Cory Joseph, and Marcus Smart and Kyrie Irving swarmed to him and swiped at him. The Celtics would later say that Smart was even yelling to the referee to call the foul. But then the Celtics were thankful that he did not.
After Joseph passed the ball to Bojan Bogdanovic about 10 feet from midcourt, Celtics guard Shane Larkin came over to offer resistance and, the Celtics hoped, a foul. Time was running out.
“I wanted to pressure him for a second and then force something,” Larkin said. “Lucky for us, he just didn’t want to be part of the ball, and just lofted it up.”
Rozier was lurking at the free throw line. As Bogdanovic jumped and lofted a high, wandering pass toward Victor Oladipo, Rozier pounced and knocked the ball away with his left hand. He briefly looked up at the scoreboard to survey his options. At first, he thought he might need to pull up for a jumper.
“But I had enough time to dunk,” he said.
And after his unlikely interception, he soared in for a one-handed slam with 1.6 seconds left that sent Boston to a 112-111 win.
The Pacers had one final chance, and on most nights Darren Collison’s 57-foot contested heave wouldn’t even be a concern. Yet on this night anything seemed possible, and sure enough, Collison’s dart thudded off the back of the rim, capping one of the wildest endings of this NBA season.
The lively crowd here gasped at the near-miss, then stood in stunned silence, and then some booed, upset that Indiana had somehow let this one slip away. As one Pacers fan walked up an aisle toward the exit, he muttered to his friend: “If that shot had gone in, it would have been the best game of my life.”
Instead, it was a gut punch. While Rozier’s steal and emphatic dunk will be the indelible moment, the 30 seconds that preceded it were rather remarkable for the Celtics, too. They mostly needed to be perfect in that span to have a chance, and they were.
With 31.3 seconds left, Oladipo scooped in a layup that made it 107-102. According to ESPN, teams that trailed by 5 points or more in the final 30 seconds of a game this season were 0-379. That would soon change.
After a timeout, Irving hit a 3-pointer from the corner to pull Boston within 2. Lance Stephenson answered with two free throws before Smart made it 109-107 on a runner in the lane with 22.2 seconds left. Following two more free throws by Oladipo, Irving hit a 3 from the top of the key with 9.3 seconds remaining to pull the Celtics within 111-110.
If any of those last three Celtics shots had missed, Boston probably would have been finished. In his short time in Boston, however, Irving has shown that he prefers these late, tense situations.
“It goes back to a lot of practice days and shots that I practice on my own, just preparing for moments like that,” Irving said. “They just come and when they come, I’m ready for them.”
Finally, Boston’s ball-hawking, four-guard defensive unit would take care of the rest. Yes, they veered from the plan a bit. They did not foul when they were supposed to. Instead, they decided to play some football, with Rozier happily snaring the interception.
“Sometimes it’s just a random game where things work out in your favor,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I know as much as we all try to analyze it, like, I think we got lucky in a lot of ways. But we stayed in the play and played really hard and gave ourselves a chance.”
Irving had 30 points to lead the Celtics, who made 16 of 26 3-pointers (61.5 percent). Horford finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and a game-high 9 assists. But, at the final buzzer, he was the one receiving a hand, as he hopped onto the shoulders of burly center Aron Baynes and happily told him to take him to the locker room, where a mild, brief celebration could begin.
As Irving sat at his locker and iced his feet in a large yellow bucket, Stevens walked over to him and smiled.
“Great job,” the coach said.
A few minutes later, on the other side of the room, Rozier quietly dressed at his stall as the Celtics’ longtime director of security, Phil Lynch, sat near him and asked if he thought his dunk would be the top play on “SportsCenter.” Rozier smiled and shrugged, but inside the room, it was clear there had been no bigger play than his.