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Just as Celtics big man Al Horford was about to back down 76ers forward Ersan Ilyasova for the game-winning attempt of Game 3 Saturday night, Celtics coach Brad Stevens raised his hands in the air and signaled for a timeout.
It was a decision that may have raised a few eyebrows at the time, but Horford, whose Celtics were trailing Philadelphia by one point with 8.4 seconds remaining in overtime, didn’t think twice to question his coach’s logic.
“This is my second year with Coach Stevens and I know to just trust his instinct and judgement,” said Horford. “He sees certain things, he understands them. I didn’t have success a couple of times there in the post going against Ilyasova and some of those guys – they did a good job of defending it. So, [Coach] didn’t feel comfortable with it. Obviously, as a player you think that you want to go in and score, but Coach, he seems like he makes the right decision every time.”
This was no exception to the rule.
Sure enough, Stevens went on to draw up a brilliant after-timeout play to help propel the Celtics to a 101-98 win at Wells Fargo Center.
The first attempt at the play didn’t go as planned. Inbounder Marcus Morris didn’t like what he saw in Philly’s defense and couldn’t find a good look, so he signaled for a second timeout in order to avoid a five-second violation.
So, Stevens grabbed the white board and drew up an adjustment.
As Morris was looking to inbound the ball this time around, the Celtics began to create chaos. Al Horford was being guarded by Joel Embiid at the top of the key, but Horford was able to lose him on a switch as Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum all scrambled out beyond the 3-point arc.
Horford ended up under the basket matched up the much-smaller Robert Covington, whom Horford sealed so that no one stood between him and the hoop.
Morris saw the easy opportunity and lobbed a pass over Covington’s head, straight into the hands of Horford, who laid in the wide-open bucket for a one-point lead with 5.5 seconds remaining.
“They did a good job,” Stevens said of Philadelphia’s defense. “They had Embiid on Morris when he took it out the first time, then they switched him onto Al the next time.
“They switched some screens then Al was able to seal for the little throw over the top. That’s something we tried to do before and we were fortunate that Al made a strong catch and made a very strong finish.”
On the defensive end, Horford was able to come up with a game-sealing steal, but the win traced back to the ATO play that Stevens drew up.
“That man Brad Stevens is a guru,” said Morris. “He might have the best out-of-bounds plays I’ve ever seen. He called the switch. He knew it was gonna happen. He called the over the top pass and it was all true.”
It was actually the second ingenious ATO play of the game from Stevens.
He also drew one up with 24 seconds remaining in regulation that resulted in a game-tying layup for Jaylen Brown.
"We got two game-winning, game-tying buckets – layups. That says it all," said Brown. "We played hard, we fought, it was a tough environment, but when it came to an ATO to draw up, a big basket that we needed, we were getting layups. I tip my hat off to Brad Stevens."
Brown wasn’t the only one tipping his hat off to Stevens following the game-winning play. All Celtics fans were collectively tipping their caps, thanking Stevens for helping Boston capture its first road win of the Playoffs and a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.