BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics were down two with less than a minute to play Wednesday when coach Brad Stevens calmly jotted down a play on his trusty whiteboard. The play was designed to get the ball into Kelly Olynyk's hands but, before breaking the huddle, Stevens told Evan Turner to look for Marcus Smart curling to the hoop for a potential early-action lob.
In the game's most pivotal moment, Turner confidently threw an alley-oop lob to a 6-foot-4 rookie who had a single field goal up to that point. Smart caught the ball with the Memphis Grizzlies' Courtney Lee scrambling to catch up, drew contact and then muscled home the bucket off the glass as TD Garden exploded.
Just another late-game gem from Stevens.
There has been no greater transformation for this Celtics team this season than its sudden ability to convert in clutch situations. Much of that can be traced to Stevens tasking his charges with simple but effective play-calling that doesn't overwhelm his players and strives to put them in position to succeed.
Smart's crunch-time lob play propelled Boston to a 95-92 triumph over Memphis, one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
Consider this: Since Jan. 22, the night Turner hit a late 3-pointer to beat the Portland Trail Blazers and seemingly lit the fuse on the Celtics' recent turnaround, Boston is averaging 0.947 points per play in after-timeout situations, according to Synergy Sports play-type data. If maintained, that number would rank the team third in the league behind only the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers (led by Boston's former Czar of the Whiteboard, Doc Rivers).
For the season, the Celtics rank sixth overall in ATO efficiency at 0.906 points per play, according to Synergy data. The five teams in front of Boston all currently project as playoff squads, which speaks to the value of crisp execution coming out of timeouts (especially when you consider that 16.2 percent of the Celtics' total plays this season have come in those situations).
Boston is 14-10 in its past 24 games, and 7-3 in its past 10. What's more, 16 of those previous 24 games have seen the Celtics within five points of their opponents in the final five minutes, and Boston owns a 9-7 mark in those games. (That .563 winning percentage ranks the Celtics in the top 10 among all NBA teams in clutch games during that span.)
"I feel [our confidence is] at a high level," said Avery Bradley, whose clutch 21-foot jumper over Marc Gasol in the closing seconds ensured the win. "We were just talking, we’ve really been in every game -- except [a lopsided loss to] Cleveland. It shows that we’re making strides and we’re continuing to be a better team.
"I think it all starts with Brad. Brad is getting us all together, having us believe in one another. We’re like a family out there. We’re a lot closer than we were, and it shows on the court."
The Celtics were among the league's worst teams in close games last season, and showed virtually no advancement at the start of the 2014-15 campaign. It's part of the reason the team ushered in a roster overhaul that saw stars such as Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green shipped out of town.
Despite all the roster turnover, these Celtics have seemingly figured out how to win, starting in late January. Instead of being the skittish team without a go-to option in the final minutes, different players are stepping up on different nights. And the recent addition of Isaiah Thomas added the sort of closer the Celtics have so desperately been seeking.
On Wednesday, Boston didn't have Thomas, who badly bruised his back on a late-game drive in Monday's win over the Heat. Unfazed, it was players such as Smart, Bradley and Turner coming up big in late-game situations.
"I think it's maturity," Bradley said. "It starts with Brad -- he’s calling the right plays, and he’s slowing us down and he’s giving us that confidence to be able to go out there and make plays. To me, the biggest play of the game was ET's pass. [Stevens] told Evan, ‘Have confidence. If the pass is open throw it.’ And that’s what Evan did, and that was a big play for us."
Smart said that after Turner delivered a perfect lob he felt it was his responsibility to finish the play off. Maybe it's simply the amount of close games the Celtics have played lately, but Boston's players are not afraid of the big moment.
"We've seen a lot," Smart said. "We went through some tough times and some good times and we learned from both of those. We learned how to execute in crunch time."
The Celtics find themselves 1.5 games back of a playoff berth, and Wednesday's upset of the Grizzlies has allowed them to hang around in a downtrodden Eastern Conference. With 19 games left on its schedule, Boston still sees Indiana, Miami and Charlotte ahead of it in the race for the last two postseason spots.
"Right now we're going down the stretch toward the end of the season, so we know every game counts," Jae Crowder said.
Here's what else we know: Nothing is going to come easy for these Celtics. But Stevens is going to put his team in position to win games each night. Boston's confidence has seemingly soared after seeing recent nail-biters tip its way.
"We’re here to grind, too," Smart said when asked about matching Memphis' grit-and-grind approach. "At this time of the season, the wins now are not going to be pretty, you gotta get in there. It’s going to be a dogfight and the toughest team, the one that’s going to grind it out the most, is going to win."