The Celtics pride themselves on always being bigger than the moment, never allowing themselves to wilt in crunch time. In fact that's one of the biggest advantages Boston prided itself on coming into this Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat.
Which is why, on the heels of a 98-90 overtime loss to the Miami Heat in Monday's Game 4 at TD Garden, Boston players expressed extreme frustration over how the final play of regulation fell apart, preventing Boston from producing a quality look with a chance to win the game.
Maybe most frustrating is that it's a play that Boston has run hundreds of times before in the Big Three era. It's a bread-and-butter play with potential to set up any of Boston's Big Three for a quality shot. But when it broke down in the closing seconds Monday, the Celtics settled for a terrible Paul Pierce fadeaway with LeBron James draped all over him. That shot found iron and the game spilled into overtime where an out-of-gas Celtics squad watched the game -- and maybe their championships aspirations -- slip away.
Let's break it down (with TNT screenshots):
With 19.5 seconds on the clock and the shot clock off, the Celtics have plenty of time to get the look they want. Ray Allen takes the inbounds pass and hands it off to Paul Pierce on the left side above the arc. Guards Delonte West and Rajon Rondo bury themselves in the left corner and are only options if their defenders scramble to help and blow up another option. The real action on the play occurs on the right wing, where Ray Allen is supposed to set a screen that will allow Kevin Garnett to come out free and set a pick on Pierce's man, James.
The defense is likely expecting Garnett to set a pick for Allen, which means freeing Garnett shouldn't be an issue. But Garnett gets tangled twice trying to run through Allen and the two essentially do a do-si-do as Pierce begins to panic and starts emphatically waving for Garnett to come over to start the pick-and-roll.
With less than five seconds on the clock, Pierce can't wait any longer and has no choice but to drive left and settles for a fadeaway with James in his face. What's infuriating for Boston is that this play is designed for numerous potential shots: Pierce in isolation off the pick-and-roll on the right wing, Garnett on the roll to the basket, and Allen in the corner if his man wanders. And yet Boston settled for maybe the worst potential look available.
How might things have played out if the play didn't break down and Garnett established the pick-and-roll? You might have seen Pierce from his sweet spot at the right elbow (as the Knicks know too well) or KG rolling to the basket (as the Heat had seen in Game 3 in a variation of that play), or Allen with the corner 3 (like countless teams, including the Nets, have watched).
Here's a sampling of the reaction about the broken play:
Celtics coach Doc Rivers: "We didn’t execute the play. I’ll just leave it at that. We ended up leaving Paul on the island. It’s a play we’ve run several times, and we just didn’t execute it. It was supposed to be a pick-and-roll with a flare and none of it happened, which was unusual for us. But it happened.”
Pierce: "We were supposed to end up with a fade for Ray, then I was coming off a pick-and-roll for Kevin. I guess there was a little confusion right there and we never got into it, and I had to force a bad shot."
Allen: "What we wanted was, we wanted to get a pick-and-roll with Paul and Kevin. We kind of screwed it up because we wanted Paul to get the ball, and I’m at the free throw line and I wanted to kind of fan off and create some misdirection and then Kevin go set the screen, and then from there see what we got. But I don’t think we got a great shot, Paul still got a shot at the basket. We’re kicking ourselves over that.”
Garnett: "The timing actually got messed up when [Pierce] went and got the ball and a miscommunication. Paul went with a couple seconds on the clock and felt like he had to be aggressive in that situation. But a play's all timing. If you don't come off at a certain time, the clock's going, Paul felt like he had to go. That's what it was."
Rondo: "We just messed the play up. We're a veteran team, that can't be an excuse. We have to find a way to execute down the stretch. It's just an effect of how the outcome of the game -- we didn't execute, barely got a shot off and they came down and did what they had to do... It's a surprise, but it happens. A lot of talking during the huddle and there wasn't enough listening, I don't believe."
Allen complicated matters a bit by going so wide to the wing, but Garnett simply has to get up top for the pick-and-roll, otherwise the play has no chance. On this night, the Celtics shot themselves in the foot on a simple play that has won them numerous games. But failure to execute it properly Monday might have cost Boston its season.