The Boston Celtics lost a chance to take their Conference Semifinal matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers on the road with a two games-to-none advantage to one of the more “come on…really?” plays available in a basketball game. Down three with 12 seconds to go, the Celtics set up to inbound from the sideline. The 76ers had a foul to give, and would presumably use it within the first few seconds of the ensuing action.
Keyon Dooling sent the ball in to Rajon Rondo, who was stationed several steps above the arc. Off the pass, Ray Allen curled around a Kevin Garnett screen into the paint, pulling Jrue Holiday and Garnett’s man, Lavoy Allen, with him. This left a wide open space at the very top of the arc which was quickly filled by Paul Pierce, who had lost Andre Iguodala around a second Garnett pick. As expected, the whistle blew. The call: an illegal screen from Kevin Garnett. The Celtics turned possession over to the Sixers, effectively ending the game.
Of course, Garnett’s screen was illegal; after making initial contact with Iguodala, he continued to press forward with his shoulder and forearm, pushing Young A.I. Kenstein off his plotted path. Furthermore, it was executed directly under the watchful eye of an official standing a few short steps away. Even so, 30 Helens agree that no one wants to see a critical playoff moment amputated by a kind-of-borderline off-the-ball foul call, especially one that robs the trailing team of the opportunity to get a shot up, except for maybe school principals and record company fat cats.
As Sekou Smith pointed out in his Hang Time Blog – and as even a person favoring a socks-and-sandals look might be able to tell you (maybe) – one play doesn’t decide a game. The fourth quarter of Monday’s was a thrilling affair, featuring lightning bolt three-pointers from Mickael Pietrus, Avery Bradley and Ray Allen, tremendous defensive sequences, and a Rondo-to-Garnett alley oop that sent shockwaves of pure, positive energy from the floorboards to the rafters, very nearly exploding the Garden into a blinding ball of rapturous flame.
Unfortunately, this was preceded by a wretched two-quarter slog in which the Celtics scored 24 points – one less than they did in the game’s first 12 minutes – on 24-percent shooting. The Sixers struggled along with the Celtics, scoring 15 points in the second quarter and only four through the first six-and-a-half minutes of the third, before detonating a 17-point cherry bomb that gave them a 10-point lead with just under a minute left in the period.
The first five minutes and thirty seconds of the third quarter were especially ghastly. The two teams combined for seven points off three-for-14 shooting and turned the ball over seven times. If you’ve read this far, here’s your last chance to bail out because we’re about to relive it blow by horrible blow.
“Taking a look at the numbers, and they are not pretty right now. It doesn’t really matter; that’s the way this game is going.” –Dick Stockton
11:39. The Sixers take possession to open the half. After advancing into the front court, they work the ball around the perimeter and in to Spencer Hawes at the mid-post. Hawes has an apparent matchup advantage, as a little pick-and-pop action with Jrue Holiday has forced Rajon Rondo to switch on to the Sixers’ center. Hawes angles into a right-shoulder-forward position and attempts to drive past Rondo into the paint. Rondo allows him through, then wraps his freakishly-long left arm around Hawes’ back, shoving his hand into the dribble. Hawes falls to the floor as the ball is jarred from his control and into the hands of Ray Allen.
Ray pushes the ball ahead to Rondo, who takes it all the way back for a running righty scoop shot over Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand (BOS 40, PHI 36).
11:15. Off the make, Jrue Holiday looks to push transition. The Celtics have three players back with Spencer Hawes ahead of all of them. In the back court, Rajon Rondo writhes on the floor in pain, stung from jamming his right wrist against the side of Elton Brand’s cinderblock skull after the shot release. Paul Pierce clips Holiday in the torso as he dribbles past, shutting the play down to allow Rondo time to recover and to force the Sixers to play five-on-five out of a sideline inbound.
The Sixers send the ball in to Iguodala, who sets up at the top of the key in a one-on-one matchup with Pierce. Iguodala crouches low and crosses between his legs as Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday look to shake themselves loose of their defenders via low-block screens from Hawes and Brand. Five seconds tick off the shot clock as nothing develops. Iguodala opts for Plan B, a left-handed drive into the lane for a shot at the rim or a kick-out to one of his teammates. Iggy blows by Pierce who, like Rondo previously, allows his man to pass before closing behind him and stripping the ball out of his hand.
Pierce sends it forward to Rondo, who advances into the paint at the other end, feints to his right, then elevates for a runner over Holiday that nicks off the front of the rim. Brandon Bass trails dutifully behind Rondo to clean up his missed shot, picking up a poke in the eye from Spencer Hawes as he drops the ball through the net. This was Bass’ first make after missing his previous seven shots (BOS 42, PHI 36).
10:25. Holiday walks the ball up the court and sends it to Evan Turner on the wing. Turner puts the dribble down and drives into a low-block trap from Ray Allen and Brandon Bass. He backs toward the corner and sends a bounce pass along the baseline toward Hawes.
Paul Pierce stands above and behind Hawes, watching the play develop. He breaks in front of the pass before Turner releases it, picking it off cleanly underneath the hoop. He turns and lofts the ball into the air, in hopes of kicking off another transition run. The pass is too high and too long, falling just ahead of the fully-extended fingers of a leaping Rajon Rondo. Andre Iguodala picks it up at the half-court line, turns and fires it forward to Spencer Hawes.
Hawes had started to run back on defense immediately after Pierce collected the turnover. Seeing that it had returned to Sixer hands, he changed direction and curled in toward the hoop. As Iguodala releases the ball, Hawes’ head is pointed first toward the sideline, then toward the baseline. He turns back to the ball just as it enters his three feet of personal space.
The ball bounces off of his shoe toward the foul line. Elton Brand snatches it up and hurries a jumper that clunks off the front of the rim. Turner and Hawes wrestle each other for the rebound. Turner comes away with it and elevates for a shot. In mid-air, he sees that he is directly underneath the backboard, surrounded by three Celtics, and that Hawes, his nearest teammate, is standing out of bounds. Just inches from alighting, he manages to flip the ball back to Brand, who pulls out and sends it to Iguodala above the perimeter.
The Sixers swing the ball back and forth around the arc before getting it in to Brand, who hits a nice little fade-away from the bottom of the circle (BOS 42, PHI 38).
10:01. Rajon Rondo walks the ball up the court and calls out instructions, which appear to be misinterpreted by Ray Allen. Ray sets a screen for Rondo at the top of the key, which Rajon stares at with what is probably disgust on his face. Paul Pierce gestures to a spot in the paint, presumably pointing out to Ray where he needs to be. Kevin Garnett claps his hands impatiently.
Twenty seconds have ticked off the shot clock by the time the play has started to develop. Ray has dropped away from Rondo, curling around a Brandon Bass screen through the paint. Bass sets a second screen for Pierce, springing him into the corner for an open look at a three that rims out and into the hands of Evan Turner.
9:49. Turner advances the ball up the court. Bass, Garnett and Rondo fill the paint ahead of him. Turner presses on in spite of them and elevates from the elbow with no real look at a shot. He turns in mid-air and attempts to bail out to a trailing Spencer Hawes.
The ball winds up nowhere near Hawes, and is instead tipped and recovered by Paul Pierce. Andre Iguodala races forward cutting off Pierce’s break at the perimeter. The Captain reverses behind his back, takes three steps toward the rim, then drops the ball off to Rajon Rondo behind him. Iguodala has planted himself at the semicircle and is well-positioned to contest a shot attempt. Rondo turns and leaves the ball for a trailing Ray Allen, who is fouled by Iguodala on his way up.
Ray makes one and misses one (BOS 43, PHI 38).
9:33. At the other end, Iguodala attempts to drive into a pretty congested paint area and squeeze a pass to Elton Brand between Bass and Rondo. The ball is deflected and bounces off Brand’s knee. It is very nearly recovered by Rondo before winding up in the hands of Jrue Holiday, who pulls it out above the perimeter and launches a three. The ball misses the rim entirely, caroming off the backboard’s long side on its way into the ready, steady arms of Paul Pierce.
“About four shots have hit Mr. West in his legs with air balls today. Teams are not necessarily dead-on.” –Chris Webber
9:15. Pierce brings the ball up himself, carries it into the corner, then draws a double-team as he attempts a baseline drive. He bails out from beneath the hoop with a bounce pass to Kevin Garnett, who immediately swings the ball to Ray Allen in the corner. Holiday puts a good contest on the shot, which bounces off the side of the backboard and into the hands of Lou Williams.
8:59. After a kicked ball by Paul Pierce at the other end, Holiday looks to find Williams at the wing off a baseline curl. Williams is open thanks to an illegal screen set by Iguodala, who had one foot out of bounds when he set it. The Celtics take over possession.
8:43. With nine seconds left on the shot clock, Paul Pierce winds up with the ball in the corner, defended tightly by Iguodala. Kevin Garnett drops down to propel Pierce to the wing via a screen. The whistle blows; another illegal screen. Garnett first bars Iguodala’s path with an extended leg, then turns to push into him with his upper body as he passes.
To recap: over the last four possessions, the Celtics and Sixers have traded one wildly off-target three-pointer for another, and then brokered an exchange of illegal screens.
8:20. Spencer Hawes catches the ball above the elbow with 17 seconds left on the shot clock. Brandon Bass plays him tight to the body, popping him with his forearms and waving his hands in his face. Hawes backs toward the perimeter, then dribbles down toward the extended elbow. There are nine seconds left on the clock when he finally manages to get the ball to someone who can do something with it – namely, Lou Williams.
Williams pulls the ball back several strides above the arc. With five seconds to go, he drives in to the elbow and fires a pass to a now-open Hawes in the corner. Hawes has plenty of time to load up a shot. It clanks against the inside of the rim and bounces into Bass’ possession.
7:59. Bass outlets to Paul Pierce, who crosses the timeline and works a favorable mismatch, using a screen that forces Andre Iguodala to stay home on Ray Allen while Jrue Holiday picks up the Captain on the switch. Pierce spins his ball hand away from Holiday then proceeds toward the paint. Holiday lashes his hand at the ball, which causes Pierce to pull to a temporary stop a step off the elbow. He gathers himself, curls into the lane, leaps and kicks out to Rondo at the wing.
Rondo snaps a pass to Garnett in the corner. Garnett pivots and starts to work Elton Brand toward the block, drawing a double from Holiday as he does so. He kicks the ball back out to Pierce, who swings quickly to Rondo. Rajon has a clean look at a jumper from above the foul line. It just barely catches the front of the rim before dropping flatly to the floor below.
7:43. The PA plays that old, familiar double-stomp and clap that Queen so generously gave to us all those years ago as Holiday drives into the paint and gently hands the ball off to Brand. Elton is quickly doubled by Allen and Rondo a step off of the block, and so rockets a pass to Lou Williams, who is temporarily alone at the top of the key. Bass races out to defend. Williams holds the ball and considers his options.
He feints to his right and Bass bites, jumping to his left to stay in front. Williams brings the ball a step away from Bass and pulls up for an open jumper. It bounces off the back of the iron. Ray Allen collects the rebound.
7:26. Rajon Rondo walks the ball up the court, Paul Pierce at his side. Allen is set up in the corner, Bass at the top of the arc, and Kevin Garnett on the elbow. With the Celtics pulled far away from the hoop, the paint is wide open.
Garnett pivots and rushes the basket as Rondo releases a lob. Here comes the lightning bolt, the high voltage play that will shock this Celtics offense back into the land of the living. Not so fast; Elton Brand grabs Garnett’s arm before he takes to the air. The whistle is blown. The Celtics will inbound from the sideline.
They work an open jumper for Brandon Bass at the wing. It bounces off the front of the iron into the backboard and then skips away to be snatched out of the air by Lou Williams.
7:11. Andre Iguodala sends a pass to Spencer Hawes, who is set up a step or two off the elbow, then runs down to the block to post up Ray Allen. Hawes obliges him with a return pass. Iggy executes a very nice left shoulder spin, getting himself a clean line on the basket. Brandon Bass fouls him as he goes up for the slam. The rim snaps against the backboard; the ball bounces sharply away.
Andre misses both his free throws.
The Celtics have scored one point in the last four minutes. The Sixers have scored two in the last three.
6:54. Kevin Garnett catches the ball with his back to the basket at the mid-post, Elton Brand at his back. He bends low at the waist and pounds the ball into the floor as he pushes toward the paint. A step inside, he pivots inward. Brand yanks a left-handed fistful of Garnett’s jersey downward as he raises his right arm high into the air. Garnett’s jumper skips along the rim. Brand comes away with the rebound.
6:27. Mercifully, it ends.
Elton Brand sets a screen for Jrue Holiday at the top of the key, then lumbers toward the basket. Both Garnett and Ray Allen stay with Holiday, which forces Brandon Bass to leave Spencer Hawes to pick up Brand at the block, and Paul Pierce to shade off Andre Iguodala to pick up Hawes. This leaves Iggy wide open at the extended elbow for a three-point try. Holiday finds him with the pass. The shot is off-mark.
Rondo jogs the ball up in transition. Bass sprints out ahead of him into an open line on the basket. Rondo hits him with a chest pass, which he takes into the air from the semicircle. Lou Williams slashes in front of him and places his hand on top of the ball. Bass’ arms go up; the ball doesn’t go with it.
Williams pushes toward the half-line and forwards a pass to Iguodala, who is several strides ahead. Iggy kicks on the nitrous to take it the rest of the way to the hoop. Kevin Garnett leaps in time with him from the semicircle, clipping him in the head with his right arm as he swipes at the shot attempt. Iggy pulls the ball down to avoid Garnett’s block, then whips it to his right and launches it into the air. The whistle blows. The shot glances high off the backboard and falls through the net.
“Yes!” Iguodala yells.
He misses the free throw (BOS 43, PHI 40).
The worst of it had been endured. Those who had witnessed the preceding five-and-a-half minutes would find themselves waking in the dead of night for weeks to come, damp with icy sweat, the echoes of clanking rims in their ears, their minds host to a frothing and senseless nightmare parade of bad passes and offensive fouls. Some turned to the bottle, some turned to worse. Dreams shattered. Families dissolved. Reason lost all purchase. Only the void remained.
Those who participated? They wouldn’t be so lucky…