What makes the Boston Celtics so good in clutch situations?
On Dec. 18, the Boston Celtics trailed at the Indiana Pacers by four points, 111-107, with 19 seconds to play and out of timeouts. This is desperation time, where the odds of victory are extremely slim and essentially every aspect of the game must be played perfectly over the final 19 seconds to claim victory.
Winning a game in that situation is nearly impossible, yet Boston came right down the court and ran a quick play to free Kyrie Irving for a three point shot that swished through to make it a one-point game with 9 seconds to play. After Indiana used their final timeout, the Celtics were able to trap Bogdanovic, who threw an errant passed that was picked off by Terry Rozier, who flew down the court for a dunk 1.6 seconds to play, sealing an improbable victory for Boston.
While any team could manage to pull off a miracle win during desperation time, the Celtics have managed to pull it off more than once. On Dec. 28 the Celtics trailed Houston by three with 11 seconds to go. Jayson Tatum slammed home a feed from Smart with 7 seconds to play, followed by Smart drawing an offensive foul on Harden, which led to Al Horford putting Boston in front with 3 seconds to go with a leaning jumper with 3 seconds to go. Smart was then able to draw a second offensive foul on Harden to give Boston another unlikely victory.
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Even in games the Celtics have not won, such as recent losses to the Lakers and the Warriors, Boston has remained vigilant throughout the waning moments, hitting big shots down the stretch and forcing their opponents to make free throws and really execute on the offensive end to close the game out.
Why are the Celtics so good at playing in desperation time? There are a few reasons, some being obvious and others less so.
The Celtics are more skilled than other teams
This may seem like a no-brainer, but the Celtics are more uniquely equipped to execute on offense down the stretch than most teams. Irving for one; is one of the best clutch scorers in the league. NBA.com has a “clutch” stat the measures a players’ performance when they play in a game that has under five minutes to play and the point differential is five points or less.
Irving has played in 29 of those situations this season, and is averaging 4.1 points per clutch situation. Only LeBron James, Chris Paul and DeMar DeRozan are averaging more.
Irving’s ability to consistently nail tough jump shots are a key part of Celtic comebacks, but he isn’t the only one. In the Houston game Horford put Boston in front by coming off-of-a-screen to catch the inbounds pass and nail a tough fade-away.
Few teams employ a player that make difficult shots the way Irving can. Fewer (perhaps none) pair that tough shot-maker with a center skilled enough to make a hard move without the ball, catch a pass and hit a contested jump shot against tough defense.
The Celtics are more disciplined than other teams
During the comeback win against Indiana, the Celtics showed remarkable patience in their approach to desperation time. Before the Bogdanovic turned over the ball, he inbounded it Joseph, who anticipated that he would be fouled, since that is what most teams would do.
Instead, Irving and Smart wisely trapped Joseph without fouling him, forcing him to pass the ball back to Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic, who was now afraid of being trapped by Irving and Larkin, threw an ill-advised pass across the middle of the court which was picked off by Rozier.
That kind of patience and discipline caught Indiana off-guard and directly led to the Celtics taking the lead. Pulling off a designed trap is difficult work, and as we saw in the Laker game, is prone to leading to foul calls that favor the other team.
Discipline can be key on offense as well. Down three against Houston with 11 seconds to play; the Celtics knew that Houston’s main priority was going to be stopping a three point shot, they exploited that defense by having Irving (tough shot-maker) set a screen for Tatum, who strolled right to the basket for an easy dunk. Resisting the temptation to shoot a three when the two point shot is a still a viable option is a key factor in the Celtics’ ability to rally back.
The Celtics have longer guards than other teams
Length is something that all NBA teams prioritize, especially for big men. However, length is important for smaller players as well. Rozier is a small guard at 6’2”, but he has a 6’8” wingspan, which he used all of to reach out and poke the pass from Bogdanovic away and led to the slam dunk.
Smart also has outstanding length; standing at 6’3” he has an enormous 6’9” wingspan, which allows him to easily guard larger players and makes traps more effective. Irving has a smaller 6’5” wingspan, which is still decent considering his height of 6’1” and also helps on the defensive end. When you boast outstanding length at the guard position as well as at the traditionally-long positions, it makes late game defense and full-court pressure much more successful.