There have been numerous instances during Brad Stevens' tenure as head coach of the Boston Celtics in which his team has trailed by double digits in the final minute of a game and Stevens has utilized his full collection of timeouts to tryi to will the Celtics back with his whiteboard, regardless of how improbable a comeback seems.
The message hammered home to his team in those situations: Never stop playing.
When LeBron James and the Cavaliers bullied their way to a four-point lead with 8.5 seconds remaining in Friday's game at Quicken Loans Arena, it would have been easy for a discouraged Boston team to pack it in. The probability of a score/stop/score scenario in that situation is practically nonexistent.
But sometimes when you never stop playing, you get a little lucky. Like when J.R. Smith mindlessly fouled Evan Turner on a baseline drive with 5.9 seconds to play. Turner converted the layup and could have pulled Boston within one -- which would have at least given the team a chance to foul before a last-gasp effort. Instead, Turner missed the free throw and Marcus Smart, sent in with the purpose of fouling, managed to help get the ball back for Boston when, after sled-driving 7-foot-1 brick wall Timofey Mozgov beneath the basket, the missed shot ticked off James, giving Boston possession.
James alertly smothered Turner, the primary option on Stevens' final-play draw-up, but it was Isaiah Thomas' alert decision to pass out of a converging double team that set up Avery Bradley's game-winning 3-pointer from in front of the Boston bench. Almost as soon as the shot ripped through the net for a 104-103 triumph, Bradley was mobbed by his jubilant teammates, eager to celebrate a victory over not only the top team in the Eastern Conference but a Cavaliers squad that swept Boston out of the opening round of the playoffs last season.
This was a statement win for Boston and they most certainly had to work for it.
"If you play this game, you should believe you're going to win until the horn goes off," Bradley told reporters in Cleveland.
Echoed Stevens: "I’d say that this group has never [stopped playing] -- that’s been a calling card of this group. We haven’t come out on top all the time, but we’ve won a couple games now where it’s under 10 seconds [and we were] down three or four. ... I think we’ve also put ourselves in position, in multiple games -- we were down seven against Dallas with 33 seconds and had a chance to go ahead or tie with the ball with 16 seconds [to play]. This game can change quickly and you just gotta kinda stay with it."
This was supposed to be a discouraging loss for Boston, the kind that leaves the Celtics second-guessing their late-game opportunities and questioning whether they can truly hang with a Cleveland squad that is clearly the elite of the East. As James attacked the basket repeatedly with under three minutes to play and, aided by whistles, turned a seven-point deficit into a five-point lead, Friday's game looked like one that Boston would regret let slipping away.
But the Celtics never quit. Down 5 with 18.6 seconds to play, Bradley missed a rushed 3-point attempt but the ball bounced directly to Jared Sullinger, who alertly elected to kick it to a wide-open Jae Crowder in the corner. Crowder, battling ankle soreness after getting rolled up on Wednesday night, made his only shot of the night on a 3-pointer from about the same spot where Bradley would eventually deliver the winner.
But maybe the most remarkable play of the night came with Turner at the line in a two-point game. Stevens subbed Smart in place of Sullinger before the free throw attempt, and that left the second-year point guard lining up next to Mozgov.
Smart noted after the game how he had planned to foul Mozgov, a 73.5 percent free throw shooter, but when it became clear there would be a rebound opportunity, Smart instead elected to pursue the ball. Despite giving up about 7 inches and at least 50 pounds, the sneaky-strong Smart muscled Mozgov deep below the hoop and, when the ball came down off the near side of the rim, Mozgov had to lean back into Smart for a chance at a rebound. Amid a small scrum, the ball appeared to deflect off Smart and then ticked off James while sailing out of bounds, giving Boston the ball with a two-point deficit and 4.1 seconds to go.
We'll let Stevens explain from there:
"Evan made a great play on the play before to drive and get fouled. Marcus Smart made a great effort to go for the rebound," Stevens said. "We ended up getting the ball and then we were going to have just a little action where we were going to look at Evan over the top, but then LeBron is really freaking smart and he switched onto Evan before they inbounded, so that took that option out. And then we just ran Isaiah [Thomas] off one [screen] and then Avery was supposed to follow him off of a second one and just pick [the open player].
"[With 4.1 seconds to play], there’s not much you can do. I thought Isaiah was going to be more open but Tristan Thompson closed that off pretty quickly. I thought it was a good, unselfish play by Isaiah to make that pass to Avery, and it was a heck of a shot."
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Celtics have delivered three game-winning buzzer-beaters since the start of last season, tied for the most of any team in the league. Boston hasn't been a great clutch team this season, owning only a 12-15 mark in games that were within five points in the final five minutes of play. But Boston has climbed from just outside the basement of that category and is slowly creeping toward moving out of the bottom third.
The Celtics had a similar climb last season, finding a way to win close games more often while posting a 24-12 mark over their final 36 games. Even as we wait to see what moves Boston will make at February's trade deadline -- adding another clutch scorer remains a desire for Boston despite an effort like this -- it's fair to wonder if the Celtics are trending toward more consistent play this season.
The Celtics improved to 30-22 with Friday's win and now sit eight games over .500 for the first time since 2012. Boston has won eight of its last nine games and 11 of 14 overall while moving into a tie with the Hawks for the third seed in the East.
Maybe, just maybe, we can daydream about another playoff series between the Celtics and Cavaliers.
"In the big picture, [Friday's victory] really does count as one [win]," Stevens said. "It gives you a sense of you’re improving and getting better. Obviously, they didn’t have Kevin [Love, thigh bruise] at the end of the game. We hope he’s OK, but I think that, for us, it was -- it would have been disappointing to lose that lead and not come out with a win. They made huge plays late in the game and I thought we missed some pretty good looks -- I thought we got good looks. But then for our guys to stay poised and score five points inside eight seconds is a good deal."