- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
BOSTON -- The temptation would have been more than some coaches could resist.
The Boston Celtics had kicked away a pair of double-digit leads and missed four shots with a chance to pull ahead of the Atlanta Hawks in the final 90 seconds. But Boston had one final gasp with 4.2 seconds to play and coach Brad Stevens had a decision to make: Ride the guys who got his team to that point or put in one of his most clutch players?
Stevens reaffirmed two of his coaching beliefs at the end of Tuesday's 92-91 loss -- 1) He's going to ride the hot hand and, 2) he's not afraid to put the ball in Jordan Crawford's hands in a game-deciding situation.
The vote of confidence he sent those players should outweigh the disappointment of defeat.
Stevens stuck with a crunch-time lineup of Avery Bradley, Crawford, Courtney Lee, Kris Humphries and Kelly Olynyk, riding the five players most responsible for giving Boston a chance to win, even with a fresh Jeff Green watching from the end of the Celtics' bench.
Crawford took the inbounds pass above the arc and tried to drive on Shelvin Mack -- Stevens' old friend from Butler -- but his fadeaway at the right elbow (kind of Paul Pierce-like, no?) kicked hard off the front rim as Atlanta escaped.
Crawford sprawled on the floor near center court. He had missed 12 of the 15 shots he took Tuesday, including six of seven 3-pointers. His poor shooting night diminished an otherwise solid outing (8 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists) and forced Stevens to explain his thought process.
"Jordan lives for that," Stevens said. "So I think he'll probably beat himself up over it, but that's OK. We play again on Thursday."
Likewise, Stevens said he'd probably second-guess himself. Should he have called a timeout on one of Boston's previous possessions to draw up a play? Should he have not called time out after Olynyk's hustle tip allowed Crawford to grab the offensive rebound to give Boston a final shot?
What Stevens did was stick with what he's preached. And that consistency should be appreciated. He's noted many times this season that he likes to ride players and/or units when they are playing well and he didn't think twice Tuesday while leaning on Olynyk (a career-high 21 points), Humphries (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Lee (11 points).
So Green, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger -- a combined minus-47 in plus-minus -- were spectators for much of the final 18 minutes of play. Stevens has often noted that if the first unit isn't clicking on a certain night, the Celtics have got at least five guys behind them eager for their minutes. That's what came to pass on Tuesday.
Of course, a win makes discussion of all these late-game decisions disappear. The fact that Boston gave away an 11-point lead over the final 6:10 leads to second-guessing.
But you can't fault Stevens for sticking with his convictions.
And that includes putting the ball in Crawford's hands. Lament his shot selection all you want -- and he had plenty of head-shaking moments on Tuesday -- but it was Crawford's Robert Parish-like, late-clock rainbow with 96 seconds to play that put Boston out front 91-90.
The Celtics had chances after that, but Olynyk missed a quality 3-point look, Humphries back-ironed a midrange jumper and Lee passed up an opportunity in transition. It was clear Crawford wanted the ball in the final moments, and his 3-pointer from the wing with nine seconds to go looked on target before catching part of the back rim (and setting off a scramble to corral the offensive rebound).
Even with Crawford having missed 11 shots to that point, Stevens had faith he might deliver on the next one. Crawford has never been afraid of the moment.
"What I see is the shot that went in the time before," Stevens said.
"I think he did a lot of good things," Stevens said of Crawford. "He missed some shots, but guys miss shots… I just think there's moments that we could have had back that we would probably like to have back because we lost. If you win, those moments don't become so big to us as coaches when we're watching the film."
Asked what he was looking for on the final play, Crawford offered simply, "Make a basket so we can win the game."
Sitting at the podium after the loss, Stevens was asked if he had pondered subbing in Green in that moment. Boston's starting swingman had three memorable winning shots in 2013 with winners in Indiana, Cleveland and Miami, but wouldn't get the chance to close out the calendar year with another.
"I think it's tough to put him in cold in that situation," Stevens said. "That's a good question. Yes, it's tempting. But being able to get the ball to guys that have been playing for at least five minutes each, in Avery and Jordan, then for most of the fourth quarter in Courtney Lee -- I think nine times out of 10 you'd lean toward that. Very rarely would you put a cold person in there in that situation, unless it's to throw it in."
Stevens stuck with his script. It didn't work out. His players should respect how he stuck to his guns, even if the final result wasn't what they hoped for. The good in allowing Crawford the final shot and riding the bench players down the stretch will be better for this team in the long run.
5dEthan Sherwood Strauss
6dMatt Walks, ESPN.com