Here come the Boston Celtics. Wednesday's 83-81 win over the Indiana Pacers pushed them to 13-4 since Rajon Rondo's injury and within striking distance of home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Given how well the Pacers have played recently, Wednesday's victory was enormous.
How'd it happen? You can thank one of the best late-game plays you'll ever see. Thanks to a brilliant set by Doc Rivers, Jeff Green got a wide-open layup with 0.5 seconds left to give the Celtics the win. Let's take a minute to break down what made this play so great and how the Pacers could have defended it differently.
The reason the play worked so well is that the Celtics used their stars as decoys. The Pacers, like all of us, have seen so many sets that ended with Paul Pierce getting the ball in a one-on-one situation at the end of games. The Celtics come out in an alignment that makes you think they're going to go to Pierce as usual.
If you had no idea what followed, you'd think this was perfectly set up for Garnett to turn and screen for Pierce to curl up to the top of the key. The other two Celtics are stationed on the opposite side of the court, and Green can easily feed Pierce on the wing, then cut to get out of the way.
The Celtics don't do that, thought, choosing instead to give the ball to Garnett in the high post.
Still, this looks like a play to get Pierce the ball in an isolation. Garnett only needs to turn and bounce the ball to Pierce in the post, and the Celtics will have accomplished their goal of putting the game in the hands of their star. Alternatively, Pierce could come to the ball, take a dribble handoff from Garnett and get free for a mid-range jumper.
This is why the play is so brilliant. What looks like a set to free Pierce is actually a set to free Green cutting backdoor. Pierce screens off Green's man, David West, brilliantly, and Garnett has an easy passing lane for a layup for Green. The pass was a bit off-target, but Green was able to recover and then finish.
Of course, whenever a player gets that open in a late-game situation, it's a reflection on both the offense's brilliance and the defense's ineptitude. How could the Pacers have done better to stop this play? This screenshot reveals two ways.
As you can see at the bottom of this screenshot, this is horrendous communication between George and West. Almost every coach in the league instructs his players to switch every screen with less than five seconds left to avoid this very confusion. While it must hurt George to switch off the top threat in Pierce, it's the only move he should make. If George leaves Pierce to help his teammate, this play never works.
But this is also on Lance Stephenson at the top of the screenshot. As the emergency weakside defender, Stephenson must recognize the play going on his opposite side much sooner and rotate down to protect the basket. He has no reason to stay with Avery Bradley because George Hill, the other Pacers defender on the weakside, can easily cover both his man (Jason Terry) and Bradley at once given the way the Celtics spaced the floor. The bigger threat is at the rim, not on the perimeter. Stephenson's indecision to rotating down was a huge contributing factor in Green getting open.
The larger lesson here? When you use your stars as decoys, good things can happen. The Pacers were caught off guard because they, like all of us, expected Pierce to get the ball. When the Celtics instead used Pierce as a screener to free Green cutting backdoor, they reacted poorly.
This is something worth considering every time you watch Pierce take those cringe-worthy elbow jumpers at the end of games. Without the normalcy of those plays, Pierce isn't really much of a decoy. Sometimes, the very best plays are the ones run infrequently.
More in the NBA: