Rivers' Genius Leads to Celtics Victory

BOSTON – There’s an old adage in sports that says coaches can coach, but it’s the players who win and lose the game. That might be the case, but certain strokes of coaching genius occasionally beg to differ.

One such moment took place tonight in the final seconds of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. Doc Rivers had a stroke of genius that hit the fast-forward button on the final 3.4 seconds of a monumental victory.

Jrue Holiday had just nailed two clutch free throws to bring Philadelphia within one point as the game clock was stopped at 3.4 seconds. The Celtics had possession of the ball and called for a timeout to draw up an inbound play.

Doug Collins, Philadelphia’s coach who has been around this game as long as anyone, headed into that timeout with a plan to get his team one more opportunity to grab a critical road victory. The Sixers had one foul to give and knew exactly what they needed to do.

“They were going to throw the ball in, get a foul, three-tenths of a second hopefully (come off the clock),” Collins said as he explained his thought process on the play. “Throw the ball in, get a foul, three-tenths of a second (come off again and) have 2.8 (seconds left on the clock). Move the ball, have a timeout and give ourselves a chance to either tie or win the game.”

Sounds easy, right? That’s pretty good coaching. It’s a thought process that every coach in that position would have, and Rivers knew it. That’s where his stroke of genius began.

Rajon Rondo

Rajon Rondo runs out the clock as Evan Turner attempts to catch him from behind.
Elsa/NBAE/Getty

Rivers foresaw what Philadelphia would attempt to do and he decided to draw up a play that would avoid such a sequence altogether. How does one do that? To borrow a term from the New England Patriots playbook, send the fastest player on the floor on a “go route.”

“Well we knew they had one foul to give so we wanted to give [the ball] to Rajon (Rondo),” Paul Pierce explained after the game. “He’s the quickest guy on the court. He can get open as good as anybody, so that was the object was to give it to him.”

The Celtics accomplished that goal by perfectly executing the brilliant play Rivers drew up during the timeout.

Something fishy was up from the second the players walked onto the floor for the final play of the game. According to Rivers, Rondo is the smartest basketball player he has ever been around. This is the exact situation in which the coach would want Rondo to be the one making the decisions and inbounding the ball. However, Rondo walked onto the floor and made his way to the far corner of the frontcourt, a move that now stands out to the 76ers who were on the floor at the time.

“I think we could have done a better job of scoping it out, with Paul taking it out of bounds,” Andre Iguodala said while looking back on the play. “With [Pierce] being a clutch free throw shooter, you kind of figured something was up.”

Hindsight always sees 20-20, doesn’t it? Philadelphia had no idea what was about to take place.

The Celtics used their premier free throw shooter as a decoy on the play. Ray Allen sprinted toward the Pierce in the frontcourt and drew most of the defensive attention. Far away from the Pierce, however, Kevin Garnett was perched at the right elbow, ready to set a big screen to free Rondo up.

Pierce actually had Allen open to inbound the ball, but he didn’t even look in No. 20’s direction. Instead, he waited for Rondo to make his break.

Rondo came off of Garnett’s screen and sprinted as fast as he possibly could into the backcourt. As soon as he gained slight separation from his 6-foot-7 defender, Evan Turner, Pierce threw the ball to him and the point guard took care of the rest.

“I know they were having Turner on me, who’s a bigger guard,” Rondo said. “I felt like I could out-quick him and that’s what I did.”

Rondo caught the ball and continued to gain separation from Turner even as he dribbled the basketball toward Philadelphia’s basket. A few seconds later, this one was in the books.

*Watch the play by clicking the video to the right*

“That’s the last thing on your mind, that they’ll go on our side of the court,” said Iguodala, who was as shocked as the rest of his teammates after the play ended. “Its kind of a gamble, but it’s a smart gamble. They beat us on it.”

Boston didn’t just out-quick Philadelphia on this one. It out-smarted the Sixers, too. That fact left Rondo sitting at the postgame podium with a sly grin on his face as he recalled the final play of the game with a touch of humor.

“I thought about throwing the ball in the air, but we have the big jumbotron and I would of hit it so that was a bad idea,” he said. “I just tried to use my quickness and like I said, escape.”

He did so with ease, which meant the Celtics escaped Game 1 with a 1-0 series lead despite playing one of their poorest games in recent memory.

They can thank their coach for this one, because he took a potentially painstaking 3.4 seconds of basketball and turned them into a breeze.