Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens knew he had an extra timeout to work with as his team prepared for a final shot attempt down one with four seconds to play in overtime against the Toronto Raptors on Saturday night. But in a rare lapse, Stevens failed to call the timeout before the Celtics inbounded the ball, taking valuable time off the clock.
Or what seemed like valuable time, anyways.
Unflappable as always, Stevens huddled his team with 2.6 seconds to play, swapped his personnel, reached into the back of his mind's encyclopedic playbook and set into motion a sequence that ended with Marcus Smart beating the buzzer in a thrilling, 117-116 overtime triumph over the Raptors on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre.
The play Stevens drew up had speedy point guard Isaiah Thomas collecting the ball on the move near midcourt and trying to finish at the rim. Thomas encountered traffic near the hoop and -- whether he muscled up a shot attempt or simply tried to pass (he told reporters in Toronto he was trying to do the latter) -- he managed to get the ball to Smart, who had crashed on the baseline, corralled the ball before it could sail away, tap-danced into position, and quickly laid the ball in just before the buzzer.
"We knew we had a timeout when we drew up the first play," explained Stevens. "I didn’t really want to inbound it if our first option wasn’t open, and it wasn’t open. We were trying to go to Evan [Turner], and they smothered it. They actually switched, and it made it a worse matchup for us. I knew right when I saw them switch that I was going to call timeout, but then Marcus threw it in, so I got [the timeout] as quickly as I could; it probably wasn’t quick enough."
Then Stevens considered the outcome and added, "I guess it was quick enough."
Thomas hadn't been part of the original play but was subbed in to utilize his quickness despite the fact that Boston hadn't practiced the play. Stevens hinted it was the sort of call the Celtics put in their play index earlier in the season for someone like Rajon Rondo.
"Full head of steam -- it’s 2.6 left, just flying," said Stevens. "We had the ball at the end of regulation with like seven seconds left, that was a little bit too much to [do a similar play]. I’ve never seen him do that before. That was a play that we put in for other guys that aren’t here. We’ve never run it since this new group has been together. So we just went right off the board and did it. It worked out."
For the Celtics, it was the latest gritty win for a scrappy team that just keeps finding ways to win big games and hang around in this quest for a playoff berth. Combined with losses by the Nets (blown out in Atlanta) and Heat (edged by a late rally in Detroit), Boston vaulted into the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference for the moment. The Nets sit a half-game up as the seventh seed; Miami is a half-game back.
For Smart, it was a heads-up play by a rookie to be in position to produce the winner. It came just a short while after Smart's clutch corner 3-pointer put Boston up one with 32 seconds to play and set into motion the frenetic final moments.
"It's just the will, the determination," Smart told reporters after the game. "The guys on this team, we're competitors, heavy competitors. We don't like to lose that much, especially when we come off a night where we didn't play that well."
The Celtics improved to 10-1 on the second night of back-to-backs since Jan. 23. Boston was wrapping up a stretch of five games in seven nights when Saturday's game tumbled into overtime. Boston just kept fighting.
The win comes one night after a disappointing loss to the Milwaukee Bucks which, coupled with the Nets' nail-biting win over the Raptors on Friday, left Boston 1½ games back of Brooklyn and a half-game back of Miami. There are now five teams within two games of each other, all competing for two final playoff spots over the final 10 days of the regular season.
Stevens has kept Boston in that mix thanks in large part to his creative batch of ATO (after timeout) plays. The Raptors had utilized a similar sequence, one in which Lou Williams caught a ball deep in the backcourt before building a head of steam en route to the basket. The Celtics had a chance to win the game with 7 seconds to play in regulation, but Thomas jacked a 3-pointer that wasn't even close. With the short clock in overtime, Stevens had to have Thomas going at the basket to ensure the opportunity to get off a quality shot. The Celtics barely did and Smart rescued them.
Boston's reward? Three off days before its next game. The Celtics have played at least every other day since the All-Star break. They'll take Sunday off and reconvene for a couple of practices before traveling to Detroit and Cleveland next week.
A few loose balls from Saturday's win in Toronto:
• SullyWatch: Jared Sullinger went scoreless again while logging 12 minutes, 12 seconds of floor time in his second game back since a surprising return from a left-foot fracture. Sullinger did register seven rebounds, two steals, two turnovers and a block and was plus-8 in plus/minus. The original final play might have ended with Sullinger putting up a desperation floater if not for Stevens' timeout.
• Twisted Mister: Jae Crowder twisted his ankle in Friday's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks but played through some discomfort on Saturday. Crowder wasn't quite himself, however, missing three of the four shots he took, while finishing with three points, four rebounds and three assists over 30 minutes.
• Evan Turner Overdrive: It's no surprise Stevens was trying to go to Turner for the original final shot. Turner and DeMar DeRozan got into a bit of a one-on-one battle late in the fourth quarter after Turner spun in a high-difficulty layup late in regulation. Turner finished with 18 points, 10 assists and six rebounds over 42 minutes. He was a team-best plus-15 in plus/minus.