AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Celtics coach Doc Rivers goes to work with the dry erase board.WALTHAM, Mass. -- It was one of the Celtics' glaring weaknesses over the final two months of the regular season: Late-game execution. Time and again, in games that should have been decided well before the final minute, it came up and stung the Celtics, leaving them perplexed, as they were forced to come to terms with head-scratching loss after head-scratching loss. It was one of the main culprits in Boston's descent all the way to the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
But you wouldn't know it after the first two games of the playoffs.
The Celtics' execution in the fourth quarter, particularly in the final minute, was on point in their last-second victories over the New York Knicks in Games 1 and 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff matchup -- something that surely could not be said consistently over the final two months of the regular season in which the Celtics dropped 11 of their final 21 games.
The effort of Boston's players was questioned over this stretch, and while it might have seemed suspect at times, the more prominent issue was their inability to close out opponents in the final frame.
"We just didn't finish games," Rajon Rondo said before the Celtics-Knicks series opened last week. "I think we were in all the games, we just found a way to lose. Bad teams find a way to lose. Not to say we're a bad team, but we didn't get the job done in the fourth for most of the games, except for probably the Chicago and the Miami games -- we got blown out -- but other than that, we still should have found a way to win games."
Of the Celtics' final 11 losses in the regular season, eight were by 10 points or fewer and six were by five points or less. In 11 of their last 24 games, Boston scored 20 points or fewer in the fourth quarter. More importantly, their inability to execute plays in the final seconds of games was maddening, particularly against inferior teams.
In a 90-87 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on March 23, the best looks the Celtics could get to try and tie the game were a contested Glen Davis 3-pointer from the left wing and an even deeper, more disputed 3-pointer by Paul Pierce. The very next game, the Celtics lost to the Charlotte Bobcats, 83-81, after Ray Allen missed a 3-pointer from the left corner and Kevin Garnett failed to connect on one of his own from the top of the key.
But, after two postseason games, it would appear the proverbial switch has been flipped. Alright, maybe not the Master Switch. But the one that governs late-game execution, at least.
In Game 1 it was Allen burying a 3-pointer from the left wing after setting a screen for Pierce and then moving around a hard screen set on Toney Douglas by Garnett. Pierce fed Allen the ball and Allen obliged by knocking down the go-ahead shot with 11.6 seconds left.
In Game 2, several things had to happen for Garnett to throw in his jump hook over Jared Jeffries to put the C's ahead with 13.3 seconds left. Pierce, Allen, and Delonte West all spaced the floor, giving Garnett room to operate without the threat of an immediate double-team, and when Rondo inbounded the ball to KG, he cut hard through the lane to the baseline, staying close enough to the rim so that Douglas couldn't risk doubling Garnett and leaving Rondo open for a potential layup.
The execution was crisp, and the rebirth of it in the postseason has been a welcome (and necessary) one.
"Obviously we didn't execute them well in the regular season, but these last two games we've done a pretty good job of executing the plays and obviously if you miss the shots they don't look as good, but we made the shots," Rondo said after the Celtics' film session at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint on Wednesday.
The historical numbers suggest players are more locked-in in the final seconds of playoff games as opposed to regular season contests. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since the 2007-08 season, on potential go-ahead field goals in the final 15 seconds of a fourth quarter or overtime period, Pierce is just 2-of-13 in the regular season, but 2-of 4 in the playoffs; Allen has made 5-of-10 shots in the regular season and 2-of-3 in the postseason; meanwhile, Garnett had made 2-of-4 looks in the regular season, but had yet to take such a shot in the playoffs prior to Tuesday night. Needless to say, he picked a good time for his first one.
It's the players' job to execute the plays, but it helps when they're being dictated to them by an architect who's being regarded more and more these days as a master of his craft. Celtics coach Doc Rivers deserves a hefty amount of credit for being able to choose the correct play for his team from the vast library he has compiled over the years.
Sometimes it'll be a play where the first option doesn't generate the basket, like Garnett's jump hook in Game 2. Other times, it'll be a play that was designed (or at least tweaked) just hours before the game, like the one that ended with Allen's 3-pointer sealing Game 1. Either way, Rivers boasts a strong history of success on out-of-timeout plays, and it's paying dividends against New York.
"As a coach he's watching," said Allen. "Doc has watched numerous hours of film, so when you see kind of what's happening, you just adjust to it on the fly. Offensively [you see] where they're doubling from, like if they're switching pick-and-rolls, if they're switching pin downs. We've got a play for almost everything, whether it's pin downs [for me], Kevin post, Paul post, Rondo pick-and-rolls, me pick-and-roll, Paul pick-and-rolls. He knows who we are, what we're good at, so you're just watching what the team does and you just pull one of your plays out and you've got numerous assistant coaches sitting on the sideline watching trends as well and that's part of it."
Quipped Rivers: "I’ve been wrong as much as I’ve been right, but when you’re right and the shot goes in, it makes it a lot better."
In spite of their recent history of final-second success in Madison Square Garden over the last two seasons (Pierce and Garnett have both hit game-winners with less than a second left), and their heroics in Games 1 and 2 of their current series against the Knicks, the Celtics could do without pushing the envelope in Game 3 on Friday. They're still searching for that full 48-minute effort that they're expecting will result in a more comfortable victory, as opposed to a last-second nail-biter.
"Hopefully we can get a couple of games where -- well, one game -- where we can have a comfortable lead," said Rondo. "But in the playoffs it's never over. If you watch every other series, guys are up 10 with three minutes to go, losing the game. So you've got to continue to grind and it's a grind moment and in the playoffs it's all about executing down the stretch."
Fortunately, the Celtics have proven the last two games that they can once again do that if they need to.
Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com