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BOSTON – Maybe Brad Stevens really is as smart as everyone thinks he is.
The coach created a miracle Wednesday night.
Stevens had plenty of options to go to for a game-winning basket, when his Celtics trailed the Jazz 84-83 with 1.7 seconds left on the clock.
There was Isaiah Thomas, who is the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week and who is averaging 20.1 points per game with Boston.
There was Evan Turner, who had already nailed two game-winning baskets for the Celtics in the last month and a half.
There was even Avery Bradley, who has come on strong since the All-Star break and who had made several big shots for Boston this season.
If you guessed that Stevens would go to any of those three guys, well... strike three – you’re out.
Stevens passed on his trio of guards, instead opting for the matchup he believed would be most beneficial to the Celtics: Tyler Zeller on a switch.
“They switched the play before when Marcus (Smart) couldn’t get it inbounded with (Gordon) Hayward and (Derrick) Favors,” Stevens explained, referencing Boston’s failed out-of-bounds play with 1.7 seconds left that led to a timeout. “We wanted to try to get that switch again, so we just ran a little action to get that switch again.”
The action worked to perfection.
Zeller set a screen at the free-throw line for Jae Crowder, who sprinted to the top of the key from the baseline. That screen secured a switch between Derrick Favors, who had been defending Zeller, and Rodney Hood, who had been defending Crowder.
The Celtics had gotten exactly what they had hoped for. Now all they needed was a perfect inbound pass from Marcus Smart over the outstretched arms of Rudy Gobert, who boasts a 7-foot-9 wingspan.
“It was tough,” Smart said of passing over Gobert. “They put a tall defender on the ball and I had to pass fake the ball to get him leaning one way.”
His plan of attack was successful. Smart, inbounding from in front of the Celtics bench, got Gobert to lean to his left and then tossed a high-arcing pass over the defense to Zeller. The pass couldn’t have been placed any better, landing in Zeller’s hands directly beneath the basket. This was the basketball version of Tom Brady throwing a fade route to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
“That was an unbelievable pass,” said Thomas, “and an unbelievable catch and finish.”
What Zeller did after catching the ball led to the second half of that sentence. The 7-footer caught Smart’s pass directly under the basket and then made the most clutch play of his NBA career.
“I saw Gordon (Hayward) flying in, so I shot faked and just got the ball up,” Zeller said. “Thankfully I was able to get up to the rim and was able to make it.”
“This win,” Zeller said, “was a big win for us.”
The game-winning play was equally important to Zeller’s career. As he noted, this was the first game winner of his NBA career. And it certainly looked it.
The big man was stoic following the bucket, similar to Stevens’ reaction to Jeff Green’s game-winner last season in Miami. He stood still and upright under the basket, revealing ">nothing but one minor fist pump with his right hand.
“I just wanted to make sure it was good,” Zeller said with a laugh after the game, justifying his minimal reaction. “That’s really all I wanted to know.”
Teammates sprinted onto the court to maul the 7-footer and celebrate the win. Still, he stood there under the basket, soaking it all in with nothing hut a huge smile.
“That’s just TZ,” said Crowder, who sported his own smile in the locker room. “He just stays within himself and just within the moment. He’s just a very quiet guy.”
Stevens, after being reminded of his similar reaction last season in Miami, elaborated on why Zeller was so cool, calm and collected.
“He’s a very businesslike person,” the coach said. “He is an everyday guy. He works really hard, he has a good sense of humor and he’s a good guy.
“With some guys you might be concerned about them hitting a last-second shot and how they’re going to react the next game. I’m not concerned with him.”
After this last-second play, no one should be concerned with Stevens’ coaching abilities, either. He drew up yet another dandy of a play that set the table for another miracle win. Smart and Zeller made his plan come to life.