BOSTON -- Right before Boston Celtics center Tyler Zeller walked back onto the court for the game's final play, Gigi Datome -- the recently acquired Italian player with a decade of overseas experience, a scruffy beard and a man bun who provides emergency depth and sage guidance -- walked up with a quick bit of parting advice: There was enough time on the clock for Zeller to be patient before attempting the final shot that was about to come his way.
The Celtics were down a point to the Utah Jazz with 1.7 seconds to play Wednesday and, after an initial inbounds attempt fizzled, coach Brad Stevens had drawn up a play designed to get Zeller the final look. The Jazz had 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert defending the inbounds pass, so Boston wanted to exploit a potential height mismatch near the basket.
Marcus Smart managed to lob the ball to Zeller, who caught it on the move in the circle beneath the basket. With Datome's advice fresh in mind, Zeller waited as help defender Gordon Hayward left his feet, then muscled home a layup between Hayward and Rodney Hood (with a hustling Gobert nearly recovering in time to help) as the buzzer sounded, lifting the Celtics to a thrilling 85-84 triumph over the Jazz at TD Garden.
"Gigi walked up to me right before [the final play] and said, 'You've got time for one shot fake.' That’s exactly what happened," Zeller said. "I caught the ball, saw Gordon flying in, so I shot-faked, and got the ball up."
What's maybe most impressive about the game's final sequence is how utterly composed these young Celtics were. Hayward had just made a 14-foot pull-up jumper over Zeller to give Utah its first lead of the second half. TStevens drew up a play for Jae Crowder, who had the second-hottest hand of the night (likely figuring the Jazz would over-commit to Isaiah Thomas, who had scored 19 of his game-high 21 points in the second half), but that play got blown up.
The Jazz were switching on screens in the hope of thwarting Boston's final play and denied Crowder the chance to catch the ball. Rather than force an inbounds pass, rookie Smart calmly called timeout before a potential five-second violation and allowed Stevens to call an audible.
Knowing that Gobert would likely remain on the inbounder and that Utah was switching on screens, Stevens exploited the situation, including getting the 6-foot-8 Hood switched onto Zeller before the lob. And it was Zeller's composure and clock awareness that ensured the outcome.
"He may have just wanted to enjoy 1.7 seconds at the rim and being the biggest guy for once," Stevens deadpanned after Zeller had to joust with Gobert for much of the night. "He fumbled [the pass] a little bit, but we always say with 1.7 you have two dribbles. So we know there's time to fumble the ball, regain yourself, and get it back up."
A subdued Zeller was swarmed by teammates -- newcomers Datome and Thomas being the first to reach him below the baseline -- but Zeller wanted the referees to confirm the call before he celebrated his first-ever NBA game winner.
In typical Stevens fashion, the ball had barely passed through the cylinder when he walked calmly to center court for a quick moment with former Butler protege Hayward. All the while, Crowder was hanging from Stevens' neck in celebration. Stevens would later glow while detailing Hayward's development and called him a "special" player.
Hayward volleyed the praise back to Stevens while applauding the game winner.
"That's what Coach Stevens does; he's excellent in those situations of coming up with a play," Hayward said. "I know it better than anybody. It's a great play, great design. They knew we were switching. The pass had to be perfect to get over Rudy and Rod, and it was. And then [Zeller] made a good finish, too."
The thrilling finish masked a grizzly game in which both teams struggled to put up points for much of the first two and a half quarters. The Celtics shot 37.5 percent overall (33-for-88), but kept themselves in the game by valuing the ball (setting a franchise record with only three turnovers) and playing some gritty defense (the Jazz shot 40.4 percent through three quarters).
Boston was up eight with 2:32 to go, but let Utah back in. Having kicked away a 26-point lead in losing to the league-best Golden State Warriors on Sunday, then enduring a 31-point, season-worst loss in Cleveland on Tuesday, the playoff-chasing Celtics really couldn't afford to let Wednesday's game slip away. Said Zeller, "This was kind of a must-win for us."
Boston remains two games back of eighth-seeded Charlotte, with both Indiana and Brooklyn in front of it. The Celtics embark on a three-game road trip with stops in New Orleans, Orlando and Miami with a little extra pep in their step. And the sour taste of Tuesday's disaster in Cleveland is washed out a bit as well.
"[Tuesday's loss in Cleveland] was embarrassing to ourselves, to this organization, and to the game of basketball," Smart said. "We understood that. So we just tried to come out here and make sure that, not only to the coaches, but to ourselves that that's not the team we were and it was just a fluke game."
Echoed Crowder: "I think we answered what Coach was talking about [in responding to adversity]. ... We came in with fresh minds and knowing we had to get this."