BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens watched the Atlanta Hawks trim his team's seemingly safe double-digit, fourth-quarter lead to a single possession with fewer than three minutes to play Friday night and, as Boston scuffled on the offensive end in a crunch-time possession, Stevens calmly walked toward the official and did what few coaches have the courage to do: called a mid-possession timeout.
This is nothing new for Stevens, mind you. Last season, he called a far-more improbable timeout in the middle of a potential final-possession play in Toronto. That night, he scrapped his original idea when it fizzled and drew up something much more daring on the fly, generating a game winner.
So calling a timeout with 2:44 to go and nine seconds on the shot clock was really no big deal to Stevens. As he would shrug after the game and say, "I just wanted to get Isaiah [Thomas] back in."
Stevens had pulled Thomas a possession earlier to get more defense on the floor in the form of Marcus Smart. It wasn't enough to hold off an Atlanta squad that had rallied from 15 down with fewer than 10 minutes to play. But Thomas went back in, setting in motion a sequence that culminated with Amir Johnson delivering a little half-hook floater in the lane, and Boston scored the game's next 10 points while racing away to a satisfying 106-93 triumph at TD Garden.
Stevens is Boston's X factor. He can't always help alleviate his team's shooting woes, but he does everything in his power to put his team in position to win games. Friday's game was exactly the sort that would have slipped away in the past, but Stevens wouldn't let it.
Instead of a demoralizing defeat as the Celtics prepare for an upcoming stretch against three Western Conference playoff-caliber foes, including a back-to-back on the road in Oklahoma City and Houston, Boston emerged with a confidence jolt by fending off one of the East's top squads.
"The momentum had shifted. We felt it on the bench," Celtics swingman Jae Crowder said of Stevens' bold, late-game timeout. "We had to execute, come out, and get it done."
Some dubbed the Celtics the "Baby Hawks" before the start of the 2015-16 season because of their starless-but-on-the-rise roster. Stevens prefers his team develop its own identity rather than try to be another squad, because there's no other team quite like these Jekyll-and-Hyde Celtics.
Boston has endured long stretches this season where it simply cannot buy a basket. Then the Celtics inexplicably catch fire and produce runs such as one late in the third quarter in which they mix sharp 3-point shooting with gritty hustle plays and backdoor cuts and actually look like a capable offense.
After some less-than-efficient play over the team's first seven games, Thomas looked like the All-Star-in-the-making we saw at the end of last season. He hit a handful of big-time 3-pointers in the second half Friday and finished with 23 points. He also handed out 10 assists while directing the offense over 34 minutes of floor time.
After a quiet first half (six points on 2-of-7 shooting), Thomas took pride in his ability to impact the game down the stretch.
"Great players adjust," he said. "They’re going to try to stop you, and you just have to figure it out. Professional -- I want to be one of the best guys to ever play the game, and that comes with it: knowing that teams are going to do whatever they can to stop you.
"It’s a long game. Coach is helping me out. My teammates help me out. And I go from there. I think I did a pretty good job tonight with just adjusting and knowing when to pick my spots, and knowing when to get other guys involved."
A beaming Stevens noted how Thomas had come to the practice facility on Boston's off day Thursday and had already studied clips of Wednesday's loss to the Pacers. When Thomas was a split-second late delivering a pass to Johnson early in Friday's game, he beat himself up on the sideline.
But no one player (or coach) can carry the load for these Celtics. Johnson, Boston's big free-agent splurge this summer, turned in his best game in green by putting up 19 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks over 36:21. Jared Sullinger produced his third straight double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) while Crowder maintained his spot as NBA steals leader with four more swipes in a hustle-heavy performance.
Smart is still shaking the rust off from a three-game absence due to a toe injury, but he played terrific defense, including checking Kyle Korver at times. Kelly Olynyk was about as aggressive as he has been in three seasons and chipped in 15 points off the bench. Heck, the Celtics dusted off Tyler Zeller for the first time in a week, and he delivered six quality minutes.
The Celtics yearn to be greater than the sum of their parts, and you can't help but figure Stevens will find a way to make that happen. Baby Hawks? We'll see. Right now they just want to build off Friday's win.
"One of 82 is the right way to put it," Stevens said. "I mean, I think it depends on if you can continue to build and grow. This is a really tough schedule that we're in the middle of. ... And you just try to get as many of them as you can. And they're all hard to get. Winning a game is hard."
But Stevens is doing everything he can to make it a little easier on his players.