With fans behind the basket waving their arms and howling, Rockets superstar James Harden gave his team a 111-110 lead by hitting two free throws with 24.3 seconds left in overtime Saturday night at TD Garden. Often, a team in the Celtics’ situation would call a timeout to draw up a play and advance the ball to midcourt. But Boston coach Brad Stevens decided to just let his team play on, and there were good arguments for this approach.
There was plenty of time and no urgent need to advance the ball to midcourt. Also, Boston had just one timeout remaining. So if the Celtics missed their potential game-winning shot with some time remaining and needed to foul the Rockets, or if they scored and Houston answered with a basket with some time remaining, it would be much more important to advance the ball then.
Stevens’s rationale stretched beyond that, though.
“With all the [Rockets defense’s] unpredictability on the side and how physical they are, sometimes it’s hard to get [the ball] in,” he said. “So we felt like calling an action we were comfortable with and looking at multiple options.”
In essence, he knew Houston would just get back on defense and not try to disrupt a baseline inbounds pass, but he had some concerns that they could have a more formidable set on a sidelines inbounds after a timeout. And the Celtics would not have any timeouts remaining if things went sour.
So the decision not to call timeout, which was understandable on several fronts, was made. And Jayson Tatum, who was finishing up one of the most dominant months in Celtics history, calmly brought the ball upcourt.
The issue for the Celtics, however, was that there seemed to be little urgency. It looked more like they were approaching the final play as if they were tied instead of down by a point.
Tatum crossed midcourt with about 17 seconds remaining, and then paused as he look toward the sideline, where Stevens called out the play.
Tatum motioned to Gordon Hayward, who caught a pass well beyond the left arc with 14 seconds left. There was several options from here, and it was no wonder that the primary one was to get the ball back to Tatum in space, especially considering the scorching run he has been on.
But the Rockets have a group of like-sized, like-minded, tough, strong defenders who Stevens has frequently referred to as linebackers. And none are tougher or stronger than P.J. Tucker.
Daniel Theis tried to set a screen on Tucker to allow Tatum to flare toward the right arc, but Tucker viewed this attempt as little more than a nuisance.
“They blew up a couple of the options with their defense,” Stevens said.
Tucker bounced off the screen and immediately smothered Tatum again, well past the 3-point line. With just 10 seconds left, this option was all but dead, and Hayward went ahead to an alternative.
He took two dribbles to his left and handed the ball off to Jaylen Brown along the left arc. Eight seconds remained. At this point, it started to become clear that the play was taking too long to transpire. The Celtics were unlikely to give themselves a good chance for an offensive rebound and putback if it came to it.
Brown was defended tightly by Houston’s Robert Covington as he probed just inside the free throw line. Hayward was in the left corner, and Harden lost track of him as Hayward cut along the baseline and was briefly open for a layup, but by now Brown was already locked in on taking the final shot.
His 15-foot step-back was difficult, but certainly makeable. It thudded off the front of the rim.
“It felt good,” Brown said. “That’s a shot I’ve been shooting all season. I’ve been working on [it]. It just didn’t fall.”
Added Stevens: “Jaylen going to his right hand for a pull-up jump shot, it’s hard to get a good look in those moments. And he got a clean look at the rim and we believe in him and trust him.”
By the time the ball caromed toward a scrum of players, just two seconds remained. Theis initially had a handle on it before Russell Westbrook swiped it away. By the time Theis regained possession, there was no time left. He hit a baseline jumper after the buzzer, and fans in the upper reaches of TD Garden roared, but the Rockets pumped their fists, because they knew time had expired.
“I guess the one time I would have considered calling timeout was if I thought Theis had control of the ball after the fact,” Stevens said. “I was good with the way we ended that.”