The Celtics found themselves needing to foul late in the fourth quarter against Milwaukee Friday night in order to get more possessions. Down but not out, they needed to send the Bucks to the free throw line to have any hope of getting back in the game.
But with a little luck, and some timely game planning, the Celtics didn’t give the game away at the line. They were able to erase a 7-point deficit in the final 42 seconds of regulation to take the Bucks to overtime.
“We had a long debate,” said Rivers after the Celtics fell to the Bucks, 99-94. “It was a hell of a situation with 17 seconds left or whatever, should we foul. The problem was we had no timeouts and they had a foul to give.”
Milwaukee was leading, 88-81, following a Monta Ellis free throw that made the game a three-possession contest. The Celtics pressed, needing a timely basket to close the deficit, and Paul Pierce was fouled by Larry Sanders.
Pierce hit both of his free throws, on his way to finishing with 35 points. Immediately off the inbounds play, Jeff Green fouled Brandon Jennings. With the Celtics having no more team fouls to give, Jennings went to the line with two chances to add to Milwaukee’s lead.
But he missed the first, and as the noise from the crowd at TD Garden reached a crescendo, the second shot bounced up and away from the rim. Green was able to grab the rebound, and Boston called a 20-second timeout to devise an inbounds play.
The Celtics got in position at the other end of the court. The referee blew the whistle, but Rajon Rondo held the ball and watched the play develop. Then he lofted a pass toward the rim. Green rose to meet the ball, and emphatically slammed it through the hoop. With 29 seconds remaining, the Celtics had cut the lead to 3.
Milwaukee brought the ball downcourt and called a timeout. There was a four-second difference between the game clock and the shot clock.
On the other side of the court, Rivers stressed the importance of the trap.
“I actually went to the players,” said Rivers. “To a man, they said let’s not foul. So I said, let’s trap. Let’s just keep trapping. They’re going to think you’re going to foul if you trap, and that will make them pass the ball.”
Sure enough, off the inbounds pass, Jennings passed it right into the hands of Rondo, who sent the ball to Jason Terry on the far side of the court.
Terry took one dribble, and with five seconds remaining, launched a 3-pointer from the left wing. The shot didn’t fall, but Green was able to poke the rebound to Pierce, who was following the play. With time winding down, Pierce met the ball at the top of the 3-point line, squared up, and took the shot.
Nothing but net.
“I had time to set myself,” said Pierce. “I got a good look at it. Jeff tipped it out to me and it just fell right into my hands at the perfect spot. I had plenty of time to square up and knock it down.”
Amid all the excitement of a game-tying 3-pointer, there was still one last possession to be had.
Sanders got the ball, but the Celtics defense collapsed on the center. With the added pressure, he was only able to muster a feeble jumper that ricocheted off the front of the rim, sending the game to overtime.
“It’s good teaching for our guys later that you’re never out of a game and you never have a game won,” said Rivers. “It could go either way.”