For sheer theatrics, nothing beats a decisive, buzzer-beating shot.
But often, it's the penultimate possession that sets the stage for the dramatic finish. That was the case last night at Staples Center where the Clippers nipped the Celtics, 92-90.
Here's what transpires with the Clippers down 90-87 and about 25 seconds remaining in the game. The Clippers collect the rebound off a Ray Allen miss on the defensive end. Rather than call timeout, Baron Davis marches the ball down-court. Remember, the Clips need three to tie -- a 2-point basket still leaves them down a point. Watch Ray Allen and Eddie House, Boston's wing defenders, on the play, and pay particular attention to Rasual Butler in bottom right-hand corner of your screen.
The Celtics are usually an unfailingly smart defensive unit, which is why seeing both Allen and House leave Rasual Butler and Eric Gordon alone on the arc is so strange. Butler and Gordon are the Clippers most potent 3-point threats. Leaving either one of them open behind the line to collapse on a driving Baron Davis with 12 seconds left on the game clock doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Let's play out the counterfactual. Say Allen and House stay at home on the Clippers' snipers. Davis, who has beaten Rajon Rondo and Rasheed Wallace on the high screen from DeAndre Jordan, glides relatively untouched to the hoop. That's not something you want to see if you're Doc Rivers, but given the circumstances, you can tolerate it (In most cases, you'd play off Davis to induce a long 3-point attempt off the dribble). Your team still leads by one point with about 10 seconds left on the game clock. In that situation, the Celtics would take a timeout, and inbound the ball on their side of the floor to Allen, Wallace, House or Kevin Garnett, each of whom is an 80 percent free throw shooter. The Clippers would get the ball back, behind one (or more likely two) with about seven seconds. They'd still have an opportunity to win the game, but would have to do so under pressure.
Instead, the Celtics have the ball in a tied game with 8.5 seconds left. Rondo works in isolation against Davis. Despite Davis' best efforts to wall off the paint, Rondo gets about a step ahead of him at about 10 feet, then angles his way in from the left side of the lane. With that long, outstretched right arm, Rondo has a good look at the basket, and Davis hacks him with 1.0 left. Rondo, a 52.7 percent free throw shooter, misses both ends. The Clippers get a free look at a potential game-winner.
After Butler drains the 3-pointer, Rivers laces into House over on the sidelines, with House snapping back at him. In his post-game remarks, Rivers says, "We had a whole potpourri of mistakes we made down the stretch -- mental mistakes. It's nothing that anyone did, just us mentally. We talk about how the only opponent we have every night is ourselves and, tonight, we beat ourselves."
I'm not sure the Celtics could have done much more defensively on Davis' game-winner, but they'll definitely be looking at some film of Butler's game-tying bomb from long range.