By Rob Mahoney
The NBA's 14-game slate on Wednesday night did not disappoint, as a whopping 10 contests fell within a perfectly manageable final margin and a handful were decided on a series of final possessions. Among those close calls was Boston's 83-81 victory at Indiana.
The Celtics and Pacers were deadlocked at 81-all with under 10 seconds remaining. Getting to that point had been a bit of an adventure for Boston, which had rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, managed to tie the game on a layup by Avery Bradley and secured the defensive stop necessary (one of 10 straight stops, mind you) to give itself a chance at a game-winner.
Boston capitalized on that opportunity rather wonderfully. Doc Rivers generally does a fantastic job of structuring individual set plays for moments such as these, and on this occasion he relied on Jeff Green, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce as the primary actors. On first glance, this clip may seem like the Celtics taking advantage of a defensive breakdown -- and to some extent that's true. The Pacers' defenders involved crossed their wires and botched their communication on this sequence, allowing Green a chance to loop to the baseline unencumbered. That's a failure in defensive execution, to be sure, but one that -- in fairness to the Pacers -- is practically invited by Rivers' play design.
The first action of note is Green's pass and subsequent cut on the perimeter, which forces David West -- the man guarding Green -- to make a decision. He can either follow Green around Garnett (and trail behind the play in the process), or he can cut under what is essentially a screen to recover to Green at a more preferable angle. West opts for the latter, but encounters some trouble along the way.
First, he chooses to cut directly between Garnett and Roy Hibbert, and swipes at the ball in the process. This engages West for a mere moment, buying both Pierce and Green some invaluable time. Because of West's hesitation, Pierce is able to wrestle away from Paul George and sets a hard up screen on West, thus freeing up Green completely on the baseline. Because Pierce is such a huge threat at endgame, the man guarding him (Paul George) doesn't even think to follow along with Green. Using an isolation scorer as a screener in these kinds of situations is a terrific way to free up that player (and others) for a clean catch, and George was simply way too focused on the possibility of Pierce getting the ball to give Green's cut the attention it deserved.
But also worth pointing out are the other two Celtics on the floor -- Jason Terry and Bradley -- who are crouched in the opposite corner with their corresponding Pacer defenders. By parking those two so far away from the action, even Lance Stephenson's instinct to help comes a fraction of a second too late. He's able to get near Green by the time the shot falls, but his reluctance to leave Bradley and his initial distance from the play in progress renders him a non-factor. Add it all up, and you have a play that preys on the vices of even the most dedicated defenders. West has little choice but to run through a glut of players, and supposes that he might be able to dislodge the ball with a quick swipe when he strays in front of Garnett. George knows that Pierce is the preferred Celtics option in these situations, and thus prioritizes that coverage over keeping tabs on Green. Stephenson and Hill can see the play in progress, but refuse to stray from their marks and allow an easy outlet. All well-intended decisions, knotted together to bind one of the best defenses in the league on a crucial possession.